I stood in class Wednesday morning and wrote two words on the dry board: ”Truth” and “Fairness.” I’ve done this time and time again over the many semesters I’ve taught college journalism.
“These two principles are what guide you,” I told the reporting class at Ohio State University. “More than anything, this is what the public expects of you. It’s what you owe them.
“You see,” I punched up the point, “when someone picks up the paper and reads your byline, sees you on TV, hears your voice on the radio or reviews your work online, they want to know two things: Are you telling them the truth and are you being fair in your presentation of the facts? That’s what makes you a commodity in journalism, it’s your integrity and the trust people put in you. Without your honesty and their trust you have nothing. Don’t let them down.”
Today, I walked back into the same classroom, in front of the same students and rewrote those same two words on the board.
“Sometimes real life serves as the best lab, the best teaching experience,” I started. “Today Brian Williams is asking himself if he can stand before millions or just one person and be believable and perceived as fair after the revelations involving his 2003 reporting from Iraq.”
Today is a bleak day for Williams, NBC and the journalism profession, not just for what he did or didn’t do, but because we all carry that same mantle of responsibility to truth and fairness. That starts at levels as high as NBC and trickles down to journalism students, catching everyone along the way.
I’m not in any position to challenge Williams’ story. I simply don’t have enough information at this point and I’ve read nearly half a dozen accounts. Only time and research will create a clearer picture for me. Until then, I won’t label his account a lie, an exaggeration or a state of confusion. Those who do so are pitching water cooler theories with little more backing than their highly charged emotions. (That’s another part of being a responsible journalist that seems to be failing a lot people right now. If you don’t know the truth it’s okay to say that. It’s what you should say. Spare us the speculation.)
What I do know, by Williams’ admission, is that the truth wasn’t served. That’s a mistake that he must own and live with. All journalists will have to live it with as well, because every bad incident allows us all to be painted with the same broad brush.
“No journalist can be trusted.” “The American media tells one continuous lie to the public.” “Shows why you can never depend on the press.” Social media is now rife with these pitchfork and fire comments, all bloviation and overreactions to this incident.
That’s why this story resonates in the journalism community, because of the public’s failure to accept it as the shoebox event that it is. It’s permits the public to justify why it wants to hate journalism despite all the good it accomplishes and its essential underpinning for democracy.
And, if journalists hold true to form, Williams can forget about empathy from his Fourth Estate brethren. Journalists are notorious for eating their own. They are already schooling outside the raft.
I recall some years ago at a Society of Professional Journalists Convention when NBC’s Jane Pauley presented a keynote address. It came shortly after NBC Dateline was caught rigging small explosives on trucks to recreate gas tank explosions to prove the point of their danger. Pauley’s mea culpa was along the lines of “We aren’t the only ones to do this. We weren’t the first,” she said, pointing a finger at other networks that she said falsified stories. That didn’t play well in front of hundreds of journalists who wanted an admission of failure and a sincere apology. It didn’t come.
Williams has owned up to his mistake and hasn’t leveraged other institutional transgressions in his defense. That much we owe him.
What he owes us will take some time to repay – our reputation.