If NBC follows the Dan Rather standard, it will either force Brian Williams to resign or fire him. Williams is the NBC news anchor who for years has said he rode a helicopter that underwent enemy fire during the ill-fated and disastrous Iraqi war. He has made the claim so many times that no apology or explanation can leave his reputation unstained.
Rather, most will remember, was the long-time CBS anchor who lost his job (excuse me—retired early!) because one of his producers failed to confirm a source. At the time Rather was the most well-known and well-respected television anchor in America. He fronted a report prepared by experienced and well-respected TV news producer Mary Mapes in a show called “60 Minutes Wednesday.” The topic: some memos purported to be written by a Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian that proved once and for all that Bush II shirked his National Guard duty during the Vietnam War era.
Too bad the memos were forgeries. After defending Rather and Mapes for about two weeks, CBS admitted that the news team had inadequately investigated the memos. Mapes was fired almost immediately, and Dan Rather, who was set to retire anyway, went more quickly and less elegantly than previously planned.
The contrasts with the Brian Williams case are striking: Rather did not lie, whereas Williams did. Rather’s report was accurate in the whole, which is to say, a lot of evidence points to the conclusion that George Jr. shrugged off his National Guard duties. Williams, by contrast, was trying to pretend that he was a soldier instead of avoiding being one.
Of course, NBC could follow the Fox News standard, which is much looser regarding the factual content of stories and the punishment reporters get for reporting false information, consciously or by accident. Take the Shirley Sherrod scandal, for example. Now deceased Andrew Breitbart, an RWRBB (right-wing rich-boy blogger), edited a video copy of a speech of Sherrod, an African-American employee of the Federal Department of Agriculture, to make her sound like a “Black racist” and posted it on his website. Fox ran the clip numerous times. We soon learned that the RWRBB doctored the clip. Fox never checked the accuracy; it probably could have easily seen the edits that Breitbart made to twist Sherrod’s words. But no one was fired at Fox. Not the anchor, not the producer, not a research assistant who might be responsible for fact-checking or sourcing video. Now why is that? Is it because journalistic ethics have declined in the decade since the Rather firing or because Fox doesn’t really care about the accuracy of its stories?
We should give NBC time to assimilate and process the Williams admission of a long-time lie and the public’s reaction to it. But at the end, if it keeps Williams, it puts itself in the same league as Fox News.
Mainstream national news stations distort the political scene in many ways: they select the experts and the issues from a narrow political spectrum that is centrist looking rightward; reduce everything to personalities; truncate coverage of real news in favor of following celebrities; accept the Republican’s definition of the issues; argue by anecdote instead of presenting the facts; stud their stories with hidden messages supporting consumerism and belittling intellectual achievement; and give the wrong side of long-settled issues like vaccination and global warming equal opportunity to spread their ignorance.
But the national mainstream news media rarely tell an out-and-out lie that they know is a lie. Fox does, which makes the NBC decision to fire or not to fire Brian Williams so interesting to observe.