By Tim Hayes
She stood five feet two, maybe. Weighed 100 pounds, sopping wet. But, boy oh boy, you didn’t want to cross her or let her down.
Mrs. H., our high school newspaper faculty advisor, took that role seriously and expected us to do the same. Even though we were printing only four editions of the school paper each academic year, she held us to the highest ethical standards of fact-finding, sourcing our stories properly, telling each side of a story factually, making sure all names carried the proper spelling, performing quality layout of the pages, and representing ourselves with dignity and pride as reporters and editors.
If any student were found to have misrepresented a source, or worse, fabricated “facts” in an article, the repercussions could be heard up and down the full length of our school’s corridors. Lockers rattled. Lights flickered. Bladders strained.
Mrs. H. may have been tiny in stature, but she remained a titanic force. A bastion, a beacon, a touchstone of character and unquestioned ethics. And it rubbed off on me, especially as a student who planned to major in journalism in college, and as editor-in-chief of that selfsame high school newspaper.
All of which flashed to the front of my mind this past week, as allegations – since proven true – arose concerning NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. It seems Williams’ story about riding in a U.S. military helicopter that came under enemy fire during the Iraq invasion in 2003 turns out to be a fabrication. He did ride on an American military helicopter, but it never attracted enemy fire. Stars and Stripes, the armed forces publication, exposed the exaggerated version of the story promoted by Williams for more than a decade. Since that revelation, more charges of false reporting by Williams have arisen concerning coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
NBC News has launched an internal investigation to determine what happened in these instances, and has promised to communicate its findings. But the horse has long vacated the barn at this point, guys.
Did Williams embellish his helicopter adventure just once, and the lie accelerated away and out of his control? Did he, as he insists, simply “misremember” being shot at? Did he feel compelled to pump up his credentials as a field reporter, and simply got carried away?
My theory goes like this: Journalism, in its truest, highest, and most ethical form, is the exception and not the rule today. With so many ways to communicate, everyone can be a “journalist.” True, properly trained, professional journalists find themselves in the minority, and may see their standards slide, just to keep up. I think Williams fell victim to this sad truth.
Beyond the competition from 24-hour cable news, instant news via Twitter, and other outlets nipping at the networks’ heels, just look at Williams’ own personal record. He has regularly appeared on late night talk shows, yukking it up with the hosts. He “slow-jams” the news (whatever that means) with Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show. He has honed his comedic chops, hosting Saturday Night Live. He has worked as hard – maybe harder – to become a “celebrity” as he has to remain a credible journalist. Watching Williams do these things always made my skin crawl, if even just a little bit.
In the course of attaining his celebrity, maintaining ethical standards of quality journalism may have simply fallen by the wayside. Fact-checking? Attributing sources? Balanced reporting? Aw, that’s too much work. David Letterman won’t think that’s cool. Nobody gives you any credit for that boring stuff.
Yeah, not until you drop the ball as spectacularly as Lyin’ Brian. Mrs. H. would have kicked his ass up and down the halls of Rockefeller Center. I bet if I called her, maybe she still could.
Copyright 2015 Transverse Park Productions LLC and Tim Hayes Consulting