First, let me start by saying that I have been a regular viewer and a huge fan of Brian Williams, for the 10 years he has anchored the NBC Nightly News and, before that, on MSNBC. Like others who watched regularly, I appreciated his straightforward delivery, ability not to stumble, and wry humor. He seemed generally to comprehend the context of the stories he was delivering.
But, as Dr. Seuss once said: the time has come for him to go, Go, GO!
Brian Williams, whether he calls it a mistake, a conflation, an enhancement, or an exaggeration, told a lie. Not once, repeatedly. And publicly. And to his viewing audience. He lied about riding in a helicopter that was shot down by ground fire in Iraq. And, when the NBC internal investigation is complete, we may learn that he has lied about several other incidents.
So, is this such a big deal? Lots of people lie and keep their jobs. And, was it such a big, important lie? Why does he have to go?
In the first lecture each year in my required course for graduate journalism students on journalism law and ethics, they want to know why they have to take the course -- when they'd much rather be out on the street, with their notebooks, video cameras or smart phones actually practicing their craft.
I explain to them that journalism, unlike law, medicine or accounting, as examples, is the only profession in which they will have to be totally self-regulating. There is no profession-wide code of ethics, no ethics qualifying exam, no licensing body, and no disciplinary agency. And, in fact, many of the employers for which they will end up working, will not even have a company-wide code of ethics or policies that will clearly spell out what is permissible and what isn't. So, they need this required law and ethics course, I explain, so they have some basic grounding on what the rules of the road are for this new profession they are joining.
We start out by talking about the obligation to be truthful. Why? In short, because it is the mission of the profession. In long, because the only attribute they will have is their reputation for integrity. There is a sacred bond between the journalist and his or her reader, viewer, listener. The reporter is asking the reader or viewer to trust that what is being presented is truthful, as best as the reporter knows. And, amazingly, they do trust: without knowing the training, education, experience or background of the journalist, readers and viewers do believe that they are getting the truth -- it is actually sort of a miracle.
But, particularly when we get to studying the famous examples of plagiarism and fabrication from our profession -- Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass -- I impress upon them, or try to, that once you have breached that trust, it is often difficult, if not impossible, to get it back. And each one of such incidents contributes to the mounting distrust that the American public has in its available news sources.
The latest Gallup survey (reported in September) showed the American public's confidence in the media's ability to report the news "fully, accurately and fairly" had fallen back to an all-time low of 40 percent. It's hard to be the watchdog of democracy when few believe the watchdog.
And even though the numbers continue to decline for network news viewing, there are still close to 8 million viewers watching NBC Nightly News each night. Too many people to be bamboozled.
So, while I, and many others among that 8 million, will miss him, Brian has frayed that bond of trust to such a degree that he needs to quietly turn over the podium to an anchor who still retains the trust of the viewers of one of the most watched news broadcasts each night.
For the profession. For ethics. And for the truth.
Ruth S. Hochberger, a lawyer and former journalist for 25 years, teaches media law and ethics at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, New York University, and New York Law School.