TV Newser, among others, invites the comparison between the actions of the news division at NBC and the actions of the news division at CBS and how the approached the Paris Hilton story. Let's indulge that, shall we?
In May of 2007, CBS anchor Katie Couric told a panel in Boston , "We have a precious amount of time on the CBS Evening News and I don't think we need to ever utter the name Paris Hilton." Bold words! But then yesterday, she introduced a segment thusly: "The bar for outrage over celebrity behavior is set pretty high in Hollywood these days, but Paris Hilton's very early release from jail has brought howls of protest and cries of a double standard."
Meanwhile, over at NBC, no mention was made of Paris Hilton at all! And Brian Williams seems to think this is a good thing. On his blog, Williams snoots, "Nobody mentioned Paris Hilton at our afternoon editorial meeting...She won't make the broadcast tonight, but if there's a larger, legitimate story to be done concerning allegations of a two-tier justice system, perhaps we'll do that someday. It's not like there will be any shortage of coverage for those who can't live without the details: just stick around until the shows that follow ours on our many different affiliates."
The takeaway would seem to be: CBS and Couric are dirty promisebreakers, but over at NBC, Brian Williams and company positively brim with integrity. Okay: we'll grant you this: the whole notion of vowing not to cover something in advance is a foolish exercise. It's reminiscent of that old SNL routine where Tom Brokaw is filming segments that plan for the many ways President Gerald Ford could die:
Tom Brokaw: Alright. "Gerald Ford is dead today, and I'm gay." Now, wait a minute!
Voice of Producer: What? That'd be a huge story - Ford dying, and you coming out!
Tom Brokaw: But I'm not gay!
Voice of Producer: Today you're not gay, you know.. but then one day you wake up, you like men, and Gerald Ford dies, and we're screwed. Everyone's hearing about it from Dan Rather!
Nevertheless, we feel obliged to say, "Katie Couric expressed an opinion at some panel? So what?" Last time we checked, Couric wasn't the Queen of CBS News and her opinions, laudable or otherwise, are not sufficient to compel her producers to withhold coverage of any particular story in any particular way, shape, or form. So let's be clear: CBS, in fact, never made a promise to not cover Paris Hilton.
At the same time, take a look at Brian Williams' statement again. Because it's easily the more troubling:
1. The whole, "Nobody mentioned Paris at the meeting" is just an inside-baseball, attention-seeking brag.
2. "...if there's a larger, legitimate story to be done concerning allegations of a two-tier justice system, perhaps we'll do that someday."
Oh, well..great, Brian! Thanks! You never know...maybe "a larger, legitimate story to be done concerning allegations of a two-tier justice system" will crop up one of these days. (Maybe, for instance, the government will start detaining people without access to legal representation or something!) Perhaps you'll cover it! Perhaps you won't. It'll all depend, I suppose, if it makes the people in your editorial meetings feel important or not.
3. "It's not like there will be any shortage of coverage for those who can't live without the details."
Oh, yes, definitely imply that there are people who are simply too stupid to appreciate your news.
4. "...just stick around until the shows that follow ours on our many different affiliates."
Pass the buck, much? And: Oh, yes, definitely imply that your affiliates are backwater, subpar institutions tailored for those too stupid to appreciate your news.
So, what's the lesson? Well, certainly, if you promise to not cover a story and then cover it, you run the risk that people will remember your promise. Still, it's better to be remembered for the stories you did cover than the stories you tell people you might cover when you feel like it or the stories that you pawned off onto others. Over the long haul, the future for news organizations who shirk their responsibility is far less promising.