Regardless of where discredited NBC newsman Brian Williams ends up when his suspension is over, he should never again sit in the anchor chair at that network or at any other news organization that values its credibility.
Williams came under fire, figuratively, for a story he concocted about coming under fire, literally, when reporting from the field during the Iraq war. His tale about being in a group of helicopters hit by enemy fire and forced down, one which he has apparently been repeating for years, crumbled when someone who was there finally spoke up and said the helicopter Williams was in arrived long after the incident.
At first, Williams said he was removing himself from the NBC anchor chair for a few days, but the network had to step in and offer up some harsher punishment when a public backlash erupted from that. Last week they suspended him for six months.
Long gone are the days when Americans tuned in to their network newscast each night to hear a recap of the day's events, and viewers trusted the words spoken from the person sitting in the anchor chair without doubt.
In the never-ending quest for ratings and ad dollars, networks years ago figured out that star power was a bigger draw than credibility of the news organization as a whole. The problem with that is celebrity puts you in the spotlight, and news should always be about shining light – good or bad – on others and not yourself.
Fox News, MSNBC and others have taken celebrity to new levels, of course. And somewhere along the line, for many of these news organizations, telling the news got replaced by putting on a good show. Today you have what should be unbiased people sitting behind anchor desks who don't only offer up a recount of the day's events, but they put their own spin on that and oftentimes include their own little side commentaries. Fox is notorious for this, but it isn't alone.
Only Williams knows for sure why he embellished the story about what actually happened that day. While embedding reporters with military units in combat situations has become popular, it opens a whole can of worms about credibility in its own right. What journalist is going to report unbiased about a group of troops who are essentially ensuring that the journalist doesn't get killed in a war zone? It's just natural that they would be more likely to report favorably on the military's activities. But it is popular because it gives readers or viewers an up-close perspective that they otherwise would not get.
Williams' issue, however, didn't come about because he was reporting favorably on the troops who were assigned to protect him and his crew. It came about because he placed himself in the story as opposed to merely reporting on a story happening to someone else.
No one is disputing that the helicopters took fire or that they were forced down. They're just saying that Williams wasn't a part of it when it happened, and Williams has admitted that as well.
With that admission comes a violation of the public trust that no length of suspension can erase. We have a sometimes perverse attraction to knocking people off of pedestals, especially those placed in a position of trust. In most scandals, it is the press that is digging into the issue and exposing wrong-doing. We have to be able to believe the folks who are putting together the news, at least the legitimate news sources or those that don't put ratings and star power above their own credibility.
Too many people already reject anything that doesn't align with their preconceived notion of major events or issues. They gravitate to the biased news sources that support what they think, and they are blind to anything that runs counter to that.
In that environment, having an anchor on the news who is above reproach is essential. You might not like what the anchor has to say, but if he or she has a track record of fairness and objectivity, it is much harder to simply dismiss any report as another crazy conservative or loony liberal viewpoint.
The networks are a bit of a throwback because, despite crowing to the contrary about the "lame-stream media," for the most part they have kept credibility as a key element of what they were doing. They make mistakes, sure. And they also get taken for a ride quite often by people pushing their special interests. But generally the priority is presenting the events of the day in a complete and unbiased way.
Williams may be able to still do that, but the trust people had in him, and his reporting, is gone forever.
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Jim Lee is the Carroll County Times' Editor. Email him at email@example.com.