Media bashers, media ethicists and the Greek chorus at Comedy Central will be gorging for a long time on the disgraced remains of Brian Williams.
But the credibility crisis now engulfing NBC News is not Williams’ fault. It is never the reporter’s fault.
An “anchor and managing editor” is neither God nor a kid with a YouTube channel. He does not edit his own stories and he does not put himself on the air.
Like print journalism, broadcast news employs an army of producers and business executives whose job it is to demonstrate with every story, every day that “we work for the viewers, and we care about the truth.”
The folks in charge of ethics and basic reporting skills at NBC have been failing Williams for a long, long time.
More than a decade ago, Don Helus, one of the pilots of one of the helicopters that figured in Williams’ escalating tales of derring-do, noticed Williams’ embellishments of his brief stint as a war correspondent in Iraq. Helus showed NBC the respect of writing a letter pointing out Williams’ factual errors.
Such communications are taken seriously at news organizations wishing to be taken seriously by audiences, advertisers and sources.
Helus had every right to expect that NBC would show him the respect of acknowledging his letter and investigating his concerns.
NBC instead ignored Helus and year by year, Williams’ propensity to self-aggrandize grew along with his salary and his bromances with Jimmy Fallon and Joe Scarborough.
It wasn’t until other soldiers who were around for Williams’ journo-tourism adventure came forward on Facebook to call him a liar that we began to learn that there might also be some holes in Williams’ award- winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Helus, now retired and living in Enterprise, Alabama, was unimpressed by the apology Williams offered his audience on last Wednesday’s Nightly News.
“I had to chuckle, and it is not because I wish ill of Brian Williams,” he told Erin Edgemon of theDothan Eagle. “It was just ‘admit you are wrong and take your lumps.’ It really wasn’t an apology. It was more of an excuse than anything.”
Excuses may cut it in business and politics, but not in the Fourth Estate. Williams’ name will live in journalism infamy, but the real villains are the yet-to-be-named people at NBC News who ignored Helus’ letter.
Florence Snyder is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org