Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

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Journalists Do Good Work Until They Don’t?

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Brian Williams

The flap with NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is not unique to Brian Williams, to broadcasting or to the 4th Estate.  The halls of journalism are littered with pockmarks from shots taken at reporters for not upholding the standards to which they supposedly pledge themselves.  Cast your memory back a few short weeks and it was CBS 60 Minutes reporter Lara Logan and questions not only over her reporting of a 2013 story on the US Embassy attack in Benghazi but her return to on-air reporting at the network.

About Williams, he claimed more than 10 years ago that he was in the second of four helicopters that was attacked in Iraq.  That seems to be mostly true.  The question is how it was attacked.  When he first told the story, he said the lead chopper was hit by a Rocket Propelled Grenade but both were taking small arms fire.  Over the years (and masterfully explained by NPR Media Critic David Folkenflik – http://www.npr.org/2015/02/05/384119679/brian-williams-criticized-for-exaggerated-iraq-story) the story changed to William’s chopper being the one that was hit by the RPG.

Brian Williams has been sitting in the NBC anchor chair since 2004.  He began his career in 1981 at KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Ks.  From there, he worked at WTTG in Washington, DC, then WCAU in Philadelphia.  In 1987, he began broadcasting from WCBS in New York where he remained until 1993 when he joined NBC News.  Wikipedia says he anchored the Weekend Nightly News and was chief White House correspondent before serving as anchor and managing editor of the News with Brian Williams, also broadcast on MSNBC and CNBC.  His career has been extensive and his climb up the network ladder has been long.

But this is in no way a defense of Mr. Williams, Ms. Logan or any journalist that has gotten sloppy.  And that seems to be what has really happened here.  Whether it’s a refusal to do the deep checking a complex story requires, or a subtle need to “be the story” rather than just report on the story, sloppiness is the result.  Back in the day, it was harder to fact check the details of blockbuster stories because those resources weren’t as available to the general public and there was no venue for the public to say a reporter had gotten it wrong. But in the 70s and 80s, the subjects started fighting back.

Remember ABC vs. “Food Lion”, NBC and the exploding gas tank of the General Motors pickup and CBS vs. General William Westmorland?  Since then, with the advent of social media and the taste of blood increasingly on everyones tongue, no iota of information goes free from scrutiny for reasons that range from payback to schadenfreude.

In some ways, Edward R. Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein, Uncle Walter and the untainted others hang like the Sword of Damocles over every modern journalist, as well they should and here’s why.  Former CBS Executive Sam Roberts told Folkenflik these incidents fuel a public already skeptical about media reporting. “Oh you guys just make it up,” Roberts said. [People will say] “See I told you.  Look at what Brian Williams did.  We’re going to hear that over and over from people who are skeptical about the media”.

All a reporter has is his or her ability to tell stories and his ability to convince people to believe them.  Once that is gone, they are no longer a reporter.  Society is quick to take that away.  But reporters tend to be harder on each other regarding this kind of thing than the general public, maybe because of what Mr. Roberts told Mr. Folkenflik.  These incidents only make it harder for us to do our jobs.  Thanks, Brah.

But I certainly appreciate forgiveness and I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t.  People make mistakes and, oddly, some of those same people aren’t very forgiving of the mistakes of others.  Journalism is human recipe of storytelling fact and fiction.  And journalists are a social construction of gumshoe and celebrity.  Absolutely every reporter is subject to getting a fact wrong or embellishing a story a little too much.  Because they have a mouthpiece most others don’t, they do have a special responsibility to do everything they can to tell the transparent truth.  When they make honest mistakes, they need to own up to them quickly.  And everybody, audience and reporters, need to remember their hard work over the years before we kick them to curb for not being perfect, as so few of us are.

It reminds me of an episode of the hit TV show, “Scrubs”.  Chief in Interns, Dr. Percy Cox is telling the residents, including J.D. Dorian “Each and every one of you is going to kill a patient. At some point during your residency you will screw up, they will die, and it will be burned into your conscience forever.”

The pep talk continues …

“The point is, the harder you study, the longer you just might be able to hold off that first kill. Other than that, I guess cross your fingers and hope that the guy you murder is a jackass with no family. Great to see you kids. All the best!”

Journalism can be like that.

What is a “True Believer?”

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I met Zack at an Albertsons. The post explains the rest.

This isn’t about interviewing, although it could’ve been. The subject is probably near and dear to at least 150 million Americans. Maybe next time I’ll talk interviews.

True believers come in many forms. There are religious true believers. Sports true believers. Political true believers. There are true believers in family. True believers in our system of Capitalism. And, there are true believers in the United States of America.

What about employees who are true believers? I’m not talking about employees who are coerced into being true believers at the threat of losing their job if they’re not. And I’m not talking about employees who are the movers who shake everyone below them in an organization either. They can afford to be true believers and cheerleaders if they’re making the big bucks or have been given the power to push other people around.

I’m talking about true believers like Zack. Zack works for Coke, and I took his picture because I noticed something special about him. Look closely. See anything, unique? Zack isn’t a big wig. He didn’t ask me to take his picture. And it was Sunday, so it’s not like he had the luxury I did of being off work. .

What I noticed was that he was wearing shoes that exactly matched the colors in his shirt, the colors of his truck, the colors of every box of Coke product from the Pacific Ocean east to the Sea of Japan. I’ve seen lots of Coke delivery guys. They all wear the shirt but the shoes are always different. I guess Coke lets them pick they’re own shoes for comfort since they’re on all kinds of surfaces, all day long – jumping down, climbing up, huffing and hauling. Issuing shoes is probably an expense the company doesn’t want to have to bear.  Then again, for all I know, they do issue shoes. But this employee chose to pick these shoes for an extra reason.

They’re just shoes, right? Nope. They’re a small, spontaneous expression of loyalty by an employee that is trying to say how much he likes his job. He’s not sucking up to anybody. He’s not trying to get noticed. He’s just telling himself, “I’m in.”

This is the kind of thing every company, every federal agency, every non profit organization is dying to have; employees that care from the bottom up, from the inside out. This is the kind of thing they pay consultants millions of dollars to conduct months long studies to find.

But for many organizations, it’s elusive, like hunting for snipe. For many organizations, it doesn’t seem to exist at all and for some of them, it’s absent for a reason although they just can’t figure out why.  But maybe they should try opening an issue of Forbes, or Inc. or Harvard Business Review or Psychology Today, or practically any business tome between now and the 19th century and they might get a clue.

If bureaucracies beat workers down with policy letters and punitive actions, if they passive aggressively punish passion and initiative, if they use HR like a cudgel to compensate for their managerial cowardice and inadequacy, then they won’t see stuff like this. What they’ll see instead is employees that are “retiring in place.” They’ll see employees who would rather run through the door when their time is up than suffer fake supervisory appreciation that is less felt and more farce.  What they’ll get, year after year, are employee satisfaction surveys that put them squarely below average … surveys that say, they as bosses, suck. And they’ll deserve it.

Because, the thing is, lots of organizations have employees who are true believers.  And they kill them.

Zack is a Coke man down to his kicks. Coke, this is your public face. It got my attention. Whatever you’re doing, keep it up.  I might drink your cola, but I’ll definitely notice your workers.

Written by Interviewer

March 9, 2013 at 11:55