When a journalist falls: what Brian Williams can teach us





By Hunter Johnson





Working  in journalism has historically been anything but glamorous.  The salaries were nothing to envy, and journalists often had to deal with all sorts of unsavory characters.  Yet reporters and writers did it anyway, most knowing that their jobs were vital to their communities and ways of life.

That was, at least, before the glamorization of the media.  It began with the nightly news programs in the 1950s and 60s.  Anchors like Walter Cronkite earned the respect and admiration of millions with their professionalism and character.  Today, however, such personalities are incredibly hard to come by, as things like 24-hour news channels and Internet media have changed the goals of reporters and editors.

Until recently, Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, was seen as one of the few remaining anchors cut from Cronkite’s cloth.  In fact, many saw him as a great example of what popular anchors could be today.  He had a great sense of humor, with fantastic appearances on Saturday Night Live, slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, yet he could still deliver hard-hitting and captivating reports.

Then he lied.  Or, as he put it, “misremembered” an event in Iraq where he said his helicopter was hit by a terrorist’s rocket-propelled grenade.  That was not what actually happened.  This incident, however, may just be the tip of the iceberg of lies.  Several of his reports, specifically some of his Hurricane Katrina coverage, are now falling under scrutiny.

Few expected a journalist of Williams’ caliber to fall to such a level, yet he is far from the being the only media personality in recent decades to do so.  With the advent of 24-hour news cycles, the feeling of responsibility and duty to report the news has given way to the hunt for ratings and clicks.  You do not need me to tell you that the goal of news programs today is to deliver higher ratings than their competitors, no matter how it is done.

Crazy personalities?  On-air antics? Reporting specific aspects of events to appease particular viewer demographics?  Whatever it takes to beat the competition.

With these tactics, most media personalities now see their jobs much less as a duty than as a means for becoming a celebrity. Why should we be surprised that Williams too was seduced by fame into exaggerating his own experiences?

As I have written before, the freedom of the press is not a thing to be trifled with.  It holds a sacred duty in free society to keep the people informed so as to secure the power of the people over government.  Yet, the very people who rely on freedom of the press have come to abuse it for personal gain.

Is there a way to change this?  Of course there is.  By shunning media organizations and journalists who prioritize ratings over the truth, and calling them out when they are caught in a lie, we could encourage journalists to change their methods, and they in turn could appeal to a more aware audience.

Will it change?  That is up to us.


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