When Brian Williams came to Temple last semester to accept the Lew Klein Excellence in the Media Award, I have to admit, I was giddy. Williams was a paragon of integrity; he started from humble beginnings and worked his way up to become one of the most trusted anchors on television, as the face of NBC Nightly News. I remember feeling like I could do something with my life in this career.
School of Media and Communication Dean David Boardman said of Williams in a press release, “In every era, there is a broadcast journalist who represents excellence by which others are measured.”
He began his career as a beat reporter in New Jersey and told the audience at Temple of the September award ceremony that he lived in Philadelphia and did three stories a day in a van, written on any paper he could find.
Williams originally got himself into hot water when he began telling a story in 2003 about how his Chinook helicopter was shot at while flying over a bridge in northern Iraq. On Feb. 4, Williams retracted his story.
It was no surprise then that when news broke that Williams had lied, my initial reaction was one of disbelief. When the dust settled, the truth became clear. His suspension from NBC for six months without pay was reported by the New York Times shortly after he retracted his statement. The sobering reality hit quite suddenly. Williams is human, and for the sake of integrity, he should resign as anchor of Nightly News.
Lance Reynolds, a flight engineer who was on one of the helicopters that was shot down, told the New York Daily News that Williams arrived half an hour after the crew had to make an emergency landing. Williams, he said, was not there when they had actually been fired upon.
What followed in the weeks after Feb. 4 is a prime example of what happens when a journalist retracts a story of that magnitude – everything that they ever reported comes into question. Just ask Dan Rather. In 2005, Rather was forced to retract a story which reported that then President George W. Bush had lied about his service in the national guard during the Vietnam War. Rather ran with the story, getting assurance from sources and experts that the documents he had were authentic.
One expert hired by CBS to authenticate the documents concluded they were most likely typed on a computer using Microsoft Word. He witnessed firsthand how losing the trust of an audience can end a career – Rather stepped down to an early retirement shortly after.
Journalists trade on their integrity and trust of an audience. Had Williams committed any other faux pas, it would be possible that he would be able to keep his job. The sad truth is that in journalism there is more forgiveness for most other vices than lies. Williams’ transgression was making himself the story, and in the process, losing the script.
A report from the Marketing Arm, a research group that tracks media figures, reports that Williams has fallen from 23rd “most trusted celebrity figure” to 835th. It becomes increasingly clear that even if Williams went back to being anchor of Nightly News, his career would suffer, and maybe for good reason. Even if he were to report the news, would anyone listen?
Williams was aware of the position he put himself in when he chose to pursue a career in journalism. Through the stories of his start in journalism, I know that he understands that integrity is what makes and breaks careers in journalism. To measure our successes with his would be setting my standards too low as a practicing journalist new to the reporting world.
I have personally lost a professional hero, but in a way Williams taught me a valuable lesson that I have thankfully never had to experience myself so far in my endeavors: the truth matters – not only to society, but to your own career. This year has been a rough one for journalism, with the passing of Bob Simon of 60 Minutes and David Carr of the New York Times, the Charlie Hebdo attacks and increasingly dangerous situations for journalists in the Middle East.
The United States needs a reporter that they can trust. Unfortunately for us, that cannot be Brian Williams anymore.
William Rickards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.