Top Student Journalists Weigh in on the Brian Williams Scandal

The Brian Williams scandal AKA Conflate-Gate, the Chopper Whopper and #BrianWilliamsMisremembers has sucked a gigantic amount of oxygen out of the news media universe this past month. Professional journalists and journalism scholars have sounded off at length about every facet of it. It’s absolutely time for the student journalist perspective, especially now that the sensationalist fog is starting to lift and we can consider the controversy more on its merits.

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To that end, I recently reached out to the spring 2015 CMM Fellows — an elite crew of top editors and reporters at student media across the U.S. and in Europe — to get their perspectives on a main question prompt: What do you think of the Brian Williams scandal? 

Depending on the direction they wanted to take things from there, I also threw out a few quick follow-up prompts: Do you believe Williams deserves to be fired or should be given a second chance? What was your reaction to the initial social media explosion and mainstream media coverage? And does the whole shebang reveal any hard truths about so-called “celebrity journalists” or the state of the evening news?

The most prominent emotions weaving through the students’ answers: abhorrence at the lies and embellishments; ambivalence about whether Williams can and should sit in a news anchor chair in the future; and a smidgen of understanding for the endless demands and pressures placed on high-profile journalists.

Here is a rundown of their responses.

Emma LeGault, special projects editor, The Kansan, Univ. of Kansas

1As a psychology minor, I understand the mechanics of how Brian Williams could have misremembered his experience and recognize how prevalent false memories are in everyday life. As a student journalist, though, I am disappointed in how he, his colleagues and NBC have handled it.

Everyone misremembers, especially people who have emotional or traumatic events attached to those memories. But journalists are supposed to shine a light through the haze and unveil the truth in a situation. However, no one questioned the star “Nightly News” anchor and checked the facts until it was too late.

Although this situation is much different than the UVA-Rolling Stone rape story, there is perhaps one similarity that should stand as a rule for journalists: Even when someone says they have experienced a traumatic event, you must still ask the questions and check the facts. You cannot simply be an advocate. It is a disservice to the source and the audience if no one questions the source, even if it might be hard to do as an empathetic person.

Do I think Williams deserves another chance? Yes, he’s human. Do I think he’ll realistically get one? No. TV news is not as trusted by our generation, and this only delivered another blow to the waning credibility it has left. Ultimately, someone should have questioned Williams and checked the facts along the way.

Alex Bitter, editor-in-chief, Ka Leo O Hawai’i, U. of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

1The issue Brian Williams is facing reminds me of a controversy which plagued another famous news anchor a decade ago. In the home stretch of the 2004 presidential campaign, CBS’s Dan Rather reported on some purported military records showing George W. Bush dodged the Vietnam-era draft by receiving preferential treatment through family connections. The story was based almost entirely on the documents, so Rather and producers at CBS were forced to retract the story after experts challenged both the papers and the source who gave them to the network.

There are many differences between this story and the Williams helicopter tale, but there is also a big similarity: Both could have been told correctly the first time — or pulled from the air — if both journalists had done more to verify basic facts. In Rather’s case, this would have meant a closer analysis of the military documents to determine their authenticity. For Williams, it would have been even easier — he could have simply re-watched the story about his helicopter ride originally aired in 2003.

Even if it is true that he “misremembered” the story, the controversy is a testament to the power of questioning facts we take for granted. That nagging self-doubt shouldn’t be so great that it diminishes your confidence as a journalist, but it should force you in your reporting to revisit — double- and triple-checking, if necessary — even those things you naturally assume to be true. If Williams can’t do that with a prominent profile to maintain and more resources at his disposal than any of us are likely to have in our journalism careers, I think his time at NBC is over — and rightly so.

Ric Sanchez, editor-in-chief, Montana Kaimin, University of Montana

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It bothers me that it took 11 years for anyone to fact-check Brian Williams’ claims. It worries me that anyone, especially a newsperson, can perpetuate a lie, a lie that included other people, for that long. But the most annoying part of this whole thing is the speculation from outside media into his motives.

During the initial frenzy, reports surfaced saying he showed interest in taking over for Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show.” Twitter and Facebook collectively sighed “I told you so,” without anyone acknowledging the fact that a late-night talk show gig would sound sweet to anybody. People pointed to his appearances on “30 Rock” and other comedy shows like they were his initial stumbles into a tragic downfall. We haphazardly connected some randomly-scattered dots to make sense of a sticky, confusing situation.

This kind of motive guessing is dangerous. It is also, frankly, crappy journalism. We’re watching, and taking part in, the creation of a potentially false narrative. Yes, his steps into entertainment are worrisome in retrospect, but we don’t have any facts or quotes to connect that with his initial lie. If we’re to be disappointed by Brian Williams, and we should be, we should stick to the facts of the situation: He used his position as a newsperson to say something that was not true for his own glorification.

Sami Edge, editor-in-chief, The Emerald, University of Oregon

1Brian Williams was my favorite newscaster. He was one of the few authoritative voices on broadcast news who I could trust to deliver consistent, relevant information day in and day out. So, like many others in America, I was immensely saddened when I heard about his fabricated experience in Iraq. I don’t know what could have caused Williams to repeatedly “misremember” this occasion in the war — maybe it was the trauma of his overall war experience or the perceived pressure from his audience to have an entertaining, heroic story. But I do know that he shouldn’t ever return, or be allowed to return, to journalism.

The industry standard demands better. In all levels of journalism there should be a zero-tolerance policy for fabrication of any kind. As a reporter — and one of the most well known reporters in the industry at that — Williams is expected to be a guardian of the truth, both personal and public. By repeatedly telling an untrue story about his past, he destroyed his credibility to do so. Whether or not it was intentional, Williams can no longer represent a practice that relies on the public’s trust.

In my opinion, as soon as the lie was revealed, Williams should have resigned with a sincere apology for his error and the impact he had on tarnishing the reputation of journalists everywhere. When he didn’t do that immediately, NBC should have fired him to set a clear example that it expects nothing but absolute truth from all its journalists, regardless of popularity. No matter how much I appreciate his broadcast style, if Brian Williams comes back to NBC, I’ll say goodbye for good.

Liz Young, editor-in-chief, The Lantern, Ohio State University

1It was unnecessary for Brian Williams to have exaggerated the story. It wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught. As a journalist, Williams’ ethics should have prevented him from lying, and he also should have realized how easy it would be to trace the videos back to where the story first started. That said, I imagine there’s pressure when one holds a position like that to immerse yourself in the story. There are likely incentives in the moment, including gaining viewers’ respect, to making yourself sound more like a hero.

I could go either way about whether he should be fired or given a second chance. I know he won’t be my first source for news from here on out, but because I work at the time “NBC Nightly News” is on, he hasn’t been my first source of news anyway. It’s astonishing that he would lie the way he did and I wouldn’t fully trust him anymore, even though anything he reports now will likely be under a microscope. But what his fate in journalism will be relies more on the opinions of viewers and NBC executives than his fellow journalists at this point.

Riley Brands, editor-in-chief, The Daily Texan, University of Texas

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If there’s anything I’ve learned from the Brian Williams scandal, it’s that celebrity and journalism don’t mix easily. Williams’ persona, which swings from serious to simpering depending on the venue, was always prone to this sort of lapse. When so much of a journalist’s success turns on how much the public likes him or her, preening and self-aggrandizement naturally follow.

Fame shouldn’t be a bogeyman for journalists, but it also shouldn’t be such a powerful motivator as it was for Williams or, at the very least, the NBC executives who profited so handsomely from his ratings. Williams shouldn’t be fired, but perhaps his six-month suspension will give him some time to rethink the way he handles his public profile.

Natalie Daher, editor-in-chief, The Pitt News, University of Pittsburgh

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Scanning through Twitter and finding images of Brian Williams at D-Day and Woodstock and among the cast of “Saved by the Bell” has been amusing. I’m with the rest of his American audience — including my parents — who found his abruptly-unveiled scandal disheartening. I grazed past him once this past summer while working at NBCNews.com and was happy to report that he was the grandest celeb I’d encountered and looked “like a doll” under bright lights and makeup. As someone who’s pent up on never “being the story,” I now find my excitement conflicting.

Williams’ ongoing retelling of an alleged lie is what NBC News president Deborah Turness has called “completely wrong and inappropriate.” As one of the most “trusted” sources in journalism, his alleged lie has let a lot of us down. Maybe I’m biased for whatever reason, but to this point, I’ve upheld an all-or-nothing threshold on honesty. Lies discredit reputation and character, I’ve always thought. Any intentional misleading — most especially in journalism — is an irreconcilable wrong.

Is it an irreparable wrong for Williams? I think that depends on the public. For me, I initially said it was, and maybe I’ll bite myself for that assessment later. But I also like to think I’m forgiving and compassionate. That makes a vehement dismissal of someone’s seemingly egregious error uncomfortable, leaving me in a gray area much like most of us on the hallowed Brian Williams.

What I’ve taken away from this whole shebang is mostly something I’d already known: Cable and broadcast news is a different beast with tailored values. It’s not reflective of the same type of process and scrutiny as print — or, now, digital — reporting. That doesn’t mean lying is, in any medium, OK or excusable. But unsurprisingly, I found the late David Carr put it best, reshaping my initial thinking. “We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and pretending to be in the middle of it,” he wrote. The point exactly: Brian Williams teetered on a delicate line between celebrity and journalist for much of his career. I recounted that I saw him one time in 30 Rock to anyone who asked, yet I wouldn’t expect many of my peers or even elders to know about Carr, an unparalleled journalist I revered. Williams lived in front of our eyes for such a long time. If the investigation within (but preferably from outside) NBC reveals that this isolated scandal didn’t inhibit him from performing other aspects of his job, I’d be willing to grant forgiveness.

Joey Stipek, assignment editor, OU Nightly, University of Oklahoma

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I believe fabrication and plagiarism are the worst acts one can commit in journalism. My initial thought, when I read the news about Williams embellishing parts of the stories he covered: Here’s yet another black eye for journalism. When you do what Williams did, a news organization has no choice but to fire you or else it risks losing all credibility with the public.

This incident speaks to a larger issue of media outlets taking the word of athletes, celebrities and media personalities at face value. If more intensive fact-checking or vetting were prioritized, I don’t think you would see as many of these incidents happen.

Nicole Brown, former editor-in-chief, Washington Square News, NYU

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I was incredibly disappointed when I read that Brian Williams had misrepresented his role in the helicopter attack in Iraq in 2003. As a young journalist, it is always heartbreaking when people I look up to and aspire to be like break such basic journalistic standards. Williams was one of the most trusted journalists of our time, which makes his mistake even worse. It was right for NBC to suspend him, and I am glad there was a public outcry and media attention. Williams made a big mistake, and he does need to take responsibility for that.

At the same time, it is hard for me to accept that one mistake defines a person. I do not expect NBC to fire him when he returns unless there are revelations of other incidents involving lying or exaggeration. Williams will have difficulty regaining the trust of viewers, however. He will have to prove that this was a one-time mistake and that he is an honest, credible journalist. I don’t think people will forget about the lie, but I hope there is a way for him to come back from this.

This incident proves how difficult it can be to be a journalist, and how easy it is to ruin a career in media. Broadcast journalism is especially difficult because there is pressure to be more than a journalist. Anchors and reporters also have to be TV personalities. They often become celebrities, and that is not the true purpose of a journalist. The public expects celebrities to make mistakes and have to apologize for doing something stupid, but it does not expect that from journalists.

Courtney Jacquin, editor-in-chief, The DePaulia, DePaul University

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I feel very conflicted about the whole Brian Williams situation. I’ve always been a huge fan of Williams. I put my trust in him for so many years and found it so hard to admit to myself he was lying. War is a terrible, complicated thing and I think there is a chance Williams may have had a foggy memory about it, as he claimed. That doesn’t, however, make it OK to share that memory with his audience, especially if he wasn’t sure what happened.

I think the scandal reveals many of issues associated with broadcast news, including that it’s often all about the face and the most interesting story. Television news, especially the cable persuasion, certainly has a history of information embellishment. I had hoped network news couldn’t be vicim to this, but unfortunately that’s not true. There’s no way Williams can ever return after this controversy, even if the network would allow him.

Stephen Koenigsfeld, editor-in-chief, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State

1The news behind the Brian Williams scandal is upsetting, but I think it’s even more irritating for me as a college journalist. As students, we repeatedly hear how bad the media are nowadays. We’re constantly fighting for our generation’s time and attention with quick hits and accurate information. And when one of the most respected journalists in the world violates every ethical foundation on which the field is built, it leaves even less of a light at the end of the tunnel — for our futures and the future of our chosen profession.

Jordyn Reiland, editor-in-chief, The Daily Iowan, University of Iowa

1Something I have heard a lot — especially being in the business of journalism — is that trust takes a long time to build but only a few seconds to break, and even longer to repair. In the case of Brian Williams, this statement couldn’t hold more truth. Whether it be student media or mainstream media, gaining the trust of readers and viewers can take quite a bit of time. People are very quick to let someone know when they do something wrong, or if something isn’t exactly the way it “should be,” and often understandably so.

People who read a newspaper or watch the news on TV want to be told the facts without having to worry whether or not they are correct. That being said, when someone like Williams doesn’t tell the truth about something that happened to him, people tend to question the validity of him as a newsman. I think even more so on TV, people look up to figures like Williams, who report the news each night, and sometimes risk their lives when doing so.

I do also think it’s important to remember that people make mistakes. I’ve made errors both in my writing and as an editor, and owned up to them publicly. However, this situation, from my vantage point, is a little different. There wasn’t a lot of reason for him to lie about this particular situation, other than trying to build himself up. I don’t think this ruins him as a person forever, but it certainly tarnishes his career as a journalist, and I’m not sure it would be fair for him to come back after his suspension and resume his duties as a nightly news anchor. When individuals working at The Daily Iowan plagiarize, they are let go immediately and the public is made aware of the situation, a set of actions carried out by many other media organizations. If NBC conducts its investigation and finds that Williams did repeatedly embellish and lie, I don’t feel he should be treated any differently.

Steffi S. Lee, editor-in-chief, The Simpsonian, Simpson College

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I think he deserves a second chance, but that’s not to say he isn’t at fault. The problem is social media and journalism intertwine and get things wrong on a daily basis, so insulting him and his work isn’t appropriate. Every reporter has made mistakes. After all, we’re human too.

“Celebrity journalists” are held to a different standard. I can’t even begin to imagine what they go through on a daily basis at their workplaces. Maybe the pressure got to be too much. Maybe he was dealing with trauma from the coverage which clouded his judgment. I don’t think it’s as easy as what most people are making it to be — by saying he’s a disgraced journalist.

Comments
One Response to “Top Student Journalists Weigh in on the Brian Williams Scandal”
  1. Ted Nugent says:

    Guys like Williams don’t do the stolen-glory thing. Why? Because fame and money — they’ve got theirs.

    So how did Williams get in to this pickle back in 2003? Keep in mind that we were knee-deep in the second Iraqi War.

    William’s producer at the time probably told him: “it’ll register a lot better with viewers if you say that you were under fire while you were in Iraq — good for viewer numbers and will get viewers more emotionally attached to your reporting. And the military is not going to care because it will help bring them more support from the general public; effectively you are lying for the benefit of your country.”

    So Williams follows orders and does his job. 2013 rolls around and he’s still mentions the story off and on because that’s part of the gig. The Keyboard Warriors at Stars And Stripes (aka Fox-News-In-Uniform) finally decide to move on Williams and suddenly he’s discredited and out of work for 6 months.

    To cover his butt, Brian Williams could have ratted out the producer or higher-up at NBC who likely coached him in to lying about the story for ratings purposes. But he DIDN’T. In my opinion, Brian Williams is a stand-up guy.

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