When I was a college student, I was drawn into journalism, specifically the newspaper business, by the work of reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post reporters most credited with breaking the Watergate scandal.
The reporters’ boundless determination to tell the truth, a truth that brought down President Richard Nixon and all the president’s men, is what drew me and thousands of other young people into journalism.
There was a certain idealism that we shared. We wanted to write stories and columns that would correct wrongs and unveil the shortcomings of conniving public officials and those sitting in high places.
My top college professor, Lucien Salvant, explained to me how the business is done, and he also taught me to be truthful, no matter what, even at the expense of a good story. A good story, he said, would tell itself, and he taught me that it was OK to write an average story as long as it was the truth.
Now I come to the controversy that is NBC anchor Brian Williams. He is one of the few television journalists and national news media personalities whom I really like. There is something about his easy delivery that made him believable. Shoot, I would love to have a beer with the guy.
Now, if we have a beer, I would want to ask, “What the hell were you thinking?”
His suggestion that he was in a harrowing, near-death experience while covering a story made no sense, especially because there were other folks with him when the alleged incident occurred. It was even worse when he continued to repeat the lie.
There is no need for a reporter to embellish tales of hardship about what they had to go through to get a story. The story is not about you. Leave that other stuff for bull sessions with your family and friends. However, even on those occasions, the truth is the only option.
Williams has been removed from the air for six months. Essentially, I think, he is done as an option to return to the powerful seat he held. To bring him back would make him more of a sideshow.
Williams is not the first journalist to lie.
Who can forget Pulitzer Prize-winner Janet Cooke, a Washington Post writer who made up a fantastic story called “Jimmy’s World” about an alleged 8-year-old heroin addict in Washington, D.C. Almost immediately, her story was challenged — until finally, she had to admit that she never met or interviewed any of the people in her story.
The late Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post at the time of the Cooke fiasco, said, “The credibility of a newspaper is its most precious asset, and it depends almost entirely on the integrity of its reporters. When that integrity is questioned and found wanting, the wounds are grievous. …”
Cooke was forced to return the Pulitzer Prize and has not been heard from much since then.
The Williams issue goes to the heart of something that has bothered me for years, even when I was a reporter — and more so now that I am often on the other side of the interview.
Sometimes, the stories that are seen or read have taken on greater significance than anyone involved can imagine. But that’s the business. The theatrical foolishness that reporters add to give their stories more importance than they are worth is growing, and it is harmful to the business. The print reporters also have their way of shedding the facts to help their stories, too.
What Williams did was violate a code of honor that he had with the public and with his brethren in the business. He lied and lied again. The one thing that anchors have is the element of trust that the public wants.
It’s as professor Salvant used to ask me: “Can you prove it?”
And, “It’s OK to have an average story as long as it is the truth.”
Edward Pratt, a former Advocate editor, is assistant to the chancellor for media relations at Southern University. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.