When Trust Fails

February 10, 2015

1024px-Brian_Williams_2011_ShankboneWhen news of the Brian Williams’ “misremembrance” came out, I was taken aback. News anchors aren’t supposed to be part of the news — they’re supposed to report it. For decades, the national nightly news broadcasts and their anchors have been an institution. They’ve provided a national view on the world’s events, along with a sense of stability in times of crisis. Now, as NBC faces a crisis of its own, I wonder how it will affect the other major networks and their anchors.

According to Maureen Dowd’s recent column in the NYTimes, maybe they’ve been losing their way for quite some time. But I hope this “scandal” helps right the ship. I, like others, hold anchors and news reporters to a higher standard. I expect more from the big networks (ABC, NBC and CBS), and I don’t think I’m alone. 

I wanted to hear what some of my reporter friends had to say about the topic. What are they hearing? What is their take on this issue? It is after all, what they live and breathe. One went on the record, and the other needed to remain anonymous because of their connection to NBC National News: Here’s what they had to say:  

John Reinan, reporter for the Star Tribune and former Peepshow editor and Pony Emeritus:

I actually haven’t been talking about this with people, nor have I heard it discussed in the newsroom — not to say it hasn’t been discussed by others, I just haven’t been in those conversations. However, I can say this as a general principle:

Every reporter HATES to make a mistake. I have literally woken up in the middle of the night worried that I might have spelled someone’s name wrong in a story.

So, for the anchor of a national news program to have made an error of this magnitude is beyond stunning. 

Network TV news has certainly changed dramatically over the past decades. For example, it’s been well documented that the average sound bite on a network news program has dropped from something like 42 seconds to 8 seconds over the past 40 years. It’s my own belief that network TV reporters are chosen more for their looks and their Q Score than their reporting skill.

I confess that I do enjoy seeing Brian Williams pop up in lighthearted guest spots on “30 Rock,” Jimmy Fallon and other entertainment programs — so maybe I’m being a hypocrite. But you certainly didn’t see Walter Cronkite doing that.”

NBC_Nightly_News_titlecardAnonymous source: 

“I think the job of a national news anchor has changed tremendously over the years. We’re a long way from the days of, for example, Walter Cronkite, when people tended to view national nightly news programs as the “broadcasts of record,” and their anchors as people of moral authority. News networks today have a much smaller degree of influence, and in turn I see more and more colleagues who are less focused on journalism and more interested in their “brand” to stay relevant. Rather than simply observing and reporting stories, there’s a desperation to make a name, and to insert themselves into the news, whether that’s by using more shots of themselves on camera, trying to build their social media followers, using publicists to increase their recognition, etc. As that happens, people like Brian Williams have become celebrities themselves, and the story itself often takes a backseat to the person covering it. So maybe it shouldn’t be unexpected that there’s a tendency to develop an ego that would lead to fabricating a story of self-importance —  and repeating it numerous times without anyone challenging it.

As the facts have come out this week, that’s been very surprising to me. First of all, in my experience, anchors like Brian Williams are rarely — if ever — put in situations that are dangerous or life-threatening. As the face of a news network, they’re simply far too valuable to risk. It’s the field producers and sometimes correspondents who are in the thick of a story — not the anchors. So to hear Brian Williams claim he was sick with dysentery and threatened by street gangs during Hurricane Katrina is as questionable as the Iraq story he told, and it seems highly likely that his coworkers would know that. If you’re put in danger, you remember it. As many fellow journalists have asked: Where were his supervisors, producers and assistants who were surely there with him to challenge his version of events? 

One other factor I think is important in this situation is that because the story involves American soldiers at war, the stakes of public opinion are much higher. For Brian Williams to suggest he was in the same type of danger as the men and women serving our country overseas seems almost un-American — worse, I believe, than almost any other lie he could have told — especially when those same soldiers were among the first to question his account. 

All that said, I think it’s debatable whether he can survive this. His position — and that of any journalist — is built on trust and reputation, and his has clearly taken a major hit, as has NBC’s. I think it’s very telling that he took himself off the anchor desk, and that the network has launched a probe into his claims. I think the next couple of weeks will be critical in gauging how the public responds, but it’s not out of the question that NBC would suspend or even cut him. It’s probably unlikely, but as we saw in Dan Rather’s case, if the audience and/or advertisers won’t let it go, it may be unavoidable.” 

Integrity. Honesty. Accuracy. That’s what a national news anchor and his or her network is supposed to uphold. But in a world where major networks are fighting to get the first interview with Bruce Jenner and putting anchors in sitcoms just to please their viewers, maybe we all need a reset.