You know the sad saga of now-suspended “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams, but it’s worth re-telling and remembering to drive home the lesson.
In February, Williams was caught in a lie — a very public one resulting in a six-month suspension without pay. According to a Feb. 4 Stars and Stripes article, Williams admitted he was not aboard a helicopter that was hit and forced down by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003, as he had been claiming for years. Instead, Williams had been in another helicopter that arrived about an hour later, nowhere near the three helicopters that had been under enemy fire.
The issue came to a head — and the lie revealed — when Williams repeated the claim during a public tribute to a retired soldier during a New York Rangers hockey game. A flight engineer who had been on the helicopter that was hit posted a message on Facebook stating that Williams had not been on the helicopter with him.
The flight engineer, Lance Reynolds, told Stars and Stripes, “It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it. It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”
Williams posted an apology on Facebook to members of the crew, followed by an on-air apology on “NBC Nightly News,” but none of his apologies were sufficient enough to take the heat off. Since then, Williams has been called out, been ridiculed and become the butt of an endless stream of jokes on social media and late-night television. The anchor has also been compared to Hillary Clinton, who was accused of a similar “misremembering” of facts in 2008.
Did Williams really intend to lie, or was this a fish tale that grew each time the story was told? Some experts, including Elizabeth Loftus, a leading memory researcher and a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, have said Williams could have developed a false memory of the incident. We will probably never know whether Williams’ “misremembering” was an embellishment, a false memory or an outright lie, but we do know that the credibility of Williams and NBC are in question, as is coverage of other high-profile stories like Hurricane Katrina.
As a result, NBC launched an investigation in February, and while few details have been disclosed publicly, NBC’s preliminary findings were sufficient enough to at least temporarily (and possibly permanently) replace Williams with Lester Holt.
This is undoubtedly difficult for Williams, and his career may never rebound, but the incident has been much more difficult for those who feel betrayed — the military, the public and the journalism industry. If one of the industry’s most respected journalists could perpetuate a falsehood for more than a decade, intentionally or otherwise, who can we believe? Who should the public believe? As journalists, we all take the hit. It hurts us all.
Since this incident, I’ve been asked whether SPJ would be making a statement about Williams. As an organization, we chose not to at the time. Why? I believe our role as a membership organization is not to judge news outlets, journalists or others for their actions, but rather to provide a Code of Ethics to use as guidelines for their work. We encourage journalists to use them, but SPJ’s Code is not enforceable by law or any other formal punitive measure on our part.
While I find the entire Williams situation concerning on many levels, I am going to spend my energy focusing on what we can learn from this. Here are some reminders from the SPJ Code of Ethics that could have helped Williams and NBC News avoid the situation entirely and guide them in the lead-up and response to the controversy.
• Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.
• Verify information before releasing it.
• Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
• Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
• Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
• Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information.
• Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
• Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
• Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
• Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the months to come, and whether Williams and “NBC Nightly News” can regain their credibility. Some say the incident will blow over and new changes at NBC may make it possible for Williams to return. Others, of course, say Williams will never return to the anchor chair.
I can’t predict what will happen to him or his employer, but I hope that all journalists and media organizations will take a moment to remind themselves how valuable our credibility is. Acting ethically with each and every story is the only way to preserve it.