The scandal engulfing NBC’s Brian Williams should trouble all of us—as much for the way that the media and social media have handled it as for its’ substance.
Only further investigation will determine whether Williams simply suffered from a flawed memory, as many of us do, or whether he violated journalism’s most sacred creeds.
Yet, before NBC completed a full investigation, a media and social media driven mob called for, and received, Williams’ head when NBC executives suspended the anchor for six months (the odds that he returns in six months are lower than the odds of Jon Stewart replacing him).
This feeding frenzy occurred in spite of Williams’ long and decorated record. In discussing the case, even Rush Limbaugh, no fan of the mainstream broadcasters, noted that Williams was one of the few members of the mainstream media who had been fair to him.
The story also commanded disproportionate and unprecedented coverage throughout the media. Williams trended on Twitter for days. Outlets ranging from the New York Times to CNN to Limbaugh offered blow-by-blow coverage. Many newspaper print editions even placed the story on the front page.
Countless stories with far more impact on the lives of Americans, including developments in the war against ISIS and a new jobs report, received less attention. The disproportionate amount of coverage devoted to Williams raises significant questions about whether our insatiable desire for scandal, celebrity, and conflict prevent the press from serving the public well.
Repeated surveys and scholarly research demonstrate that the public is ill-informed about the workings of government and the substance of policy battles. Yet, stories such as the Williams scandal, the recent “deflategate,” and tales of plane crashes all too often dominate the news (I'm looking at you CNN).
Many might argue that media outlets are simply giving viewers and readers what they desire. After all, media enterprises need to generate readers, viewers, and listeners or risk ceasing to exist. Yet, the success of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, with its focus on humorous long form journalism about dense policy topics ranging from payday lending to net neutrality, should dispel the myth that the media must stick to scandals and controversy to succeed.
Critics might believe that I’m downplaying the Williams scandal. Yet, even NBC’s suspension announcement mentioned only concerns about comments that Williams made with other outlets about his experiences in the field. Outside of an incorrect recounting of his time in Iraq in 2003 on Nightly News two weeks ago (twelve years after the fact) no one has offered any evidence that any of Williams’ reporting has been tainted.
Make no mistake, Williams should lose his job if he fabricated or embellished any story that he reported in real time on Nightly News (as opposed to retelling twelve years later). But to this point, no evidence exists that he did. I wonder how many members of the media could withstand the scrutiny being applied to Williams—how many have done far worse things journalistically, including (especially on cable news) slanting a story in such a way as to distort facts?
The witch hunt has now extended to Williams’ retelling of events that predate his time at NBC News, and even his career as a newsman. These events, and Williams’ retelling of them in speeches, interviews, and talk show appearances have little to do with how he did his job at NBC.
Another deeply troubling aspect of the coverage of the Williams story demonstrates the substantial changes in the media over the last thirty years. Since the controversy erupted, the New Orleans Advocate and other media outlets have questioned Williams’ reporting on Hurricane Katrina, most especially the claim that he saw a dead body floating by his hotel window in the French Quarter. Yet, the story in the Advocate relied upon no actual hard evidence to make its accusations, just suppositions. In fact, evidence in a follow up story seemed to show that Williams’ contention was plausible.
Despite this lack of hard evidence, a story in Saturday’s New York Times noted, “Some blogs and media outlets questioned Mr. Williams’s description of what he saw while reporting on Hurricane Katrina.” Thus, simply because others raised unsubstantiated doubts about Williams’ Katrina reporting, the national paper of record repeated these claims without verifying them.
As media outlets have proliferated, the bar for when sufficient factual support exists to report something has been dramatically lowered. Gone are the days when journalists served as gatekeepers, only reporting on something when they had the facts verified.
Now, a story can start in an entertainment medium (like talk radio), on an ideologically-driven outlet, on a blog with no editorial standards, or in a tweet, and work its way through a conveyor belt of social media until it lands in the most respectable outlets. As a claim works its way up the media ladder, major outlets, who might have ignored it thirty years ago, face pressure to cover it because others are.
In this case, it appears likely that Williams will lose his job thanks to the feeding frenzy. This outcome should profoundly trouble people because of its broader implications.
Increasingly, social media breathlessly determines guilt and innocence long before the facts are in, whether the accused is a television news anchor, a sports star, a politician, or an average Joe. Further, there is an almost perverse glee to sentencing the “guilty” party to social and professional death.
I concur wholeheartedly with Jon Ronson who describes “marvel[ing] at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment. It almost felt as if shamings were now happening for their own sake, as if they were following a script.”
These judgments and the attendant feeding frenzy contributes to ever increasing public cynicism about all major institutions that dates back to the late 1960s. This cynicism makes it harder to govern, and encourages Americans to discount any reporting, with which they do not agree, thereby furthering polarization.
This culture also enables those with nefarious, selfish, or political motivates to take advantage of legitimate questions or criticisms to attempt to tear down public figures or entire institutions. The result has been a constant parade of scandals that drag people down, sometimes unfairly, and with little regard for guilt or innocence.
We need to step back and ask ourselves whether this culture, and the standards that go along with it, are beneficial or detrimental to society, and whether it is time to rein in the digital mob. Even if we might countenance holding public figures to high standards, we should fret about a society in which one poorly conceived joke or misunderstood sarcastic remark has been enough to upend the lives of countless Americans.