I spent nine years working as a newspaper reporter and editor, mostly in Texas but with brief stints in Florida and Washington, D.C. The only asset that really mattered to a news organization then – and, one would hope, now – was credibility. Without it, your reporting wouldn’t be taken seriously.
The Brian Williams debacle over his apparent embellishment (or outright lying) regarding his first-hand Iraq war coverage casts a bright light on the credibility issue. NBC News is a storied organization. Generations of Americans have turned to NBC for decades based on the underlying assumption that its news reporting was reliable and credible.
So, now the trusted face of NBC News is suddenly forced to admit he told a false story – repeatedly – about being in a helicopter that was hit by a potentially lethal rocket propelled grenade. Turns out Williams didn’t go down in flames but his credibility did the moment he told that story.
And if NBC doesn’t quickly fire Williams, its perceived credibility will also be relegated to the ash can.
Truth, honesty, integrity – these are all essential to the brand of any news organization. My fear is that celebrity will trump old fashioned notions about what it means to be a serious journalist and NBC will find a way to keep the popular and bankable Williams on board. But it’s hard to imagine that NBC will ever be able to completely heal their wounded reputation as long as Williams is their standard bearer.
The fallout will impact other news organizations, too. When one supersized news celebrity like Williams suffers such a massive credibility crisis, all news organizations catch some overspray.
Too bad for the countless news people – many are my friends – who work hard every day to maintain their integrity. The actions of someone of Williams’ stature hurt all of them. It’s guilt by association.
NBC can help their own recovery and the brand of the news industry overall if they’ll do the right thing and send Brian Williams packing.
- Eric Whittington