The media industry suffered major setbacks last week.
On one end, acclaimed journalists David Carr from The New York Times and Bob Simon from “60 Minutes” passed away. But at the center of these real tragedies, NBC suspended “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams when he apologized on air for embellishing his experiences reporting the Iraq War in 2003.
Williams’ apology sparked a firestorm of criticism. Comedian Jon Stewart, who also announced he will leave “The Daily Show,” joked that Williams caught a case of “infotainment confusion syndrome.”
Though a bit exaggerated, Stewart’s point makes clear that Williams may have allowed his public persona to affect his ability to report the news. He is one example of the worrisome relationship between news and entertainment that affects the public’s perception of the media.
The public’s distrust of mass media outlets continues to grow. The latest Gallup poll on this subject reported that 40 percent of Americans had complete faith in the media, while 60 percent had the opposite perspective.
Williams is also not the first and certainly won’t be the last to make this kind of mistake. He joins the same club as CBS News anchor Dan Rather and CNN’s John King – journalists who both made huge blunders in covering significant stories involving George W. Bush and the Boston Marathon, respectively.
We do not expect journalists to be perfect – they are humans, too. In fact, we were shocked and disappointed to hear that Williams had lied about his involvement in high-profile stories. He had established himself as one of the most credible and personable reporters.
Lester Holt said it best in his first newscast after replacing Brian, “Brian is a member of our family but so are you, our viewers, and we will work every night to be worthy of your trust.”
For Williams, his pursuit of charisma and charm may have come at the expense of his credibility. He will have to dedicate the rest of his career to making a comeback and once again placing himself in the public’s trust.
Nevertheless, the network deserves part of the blame for not addressing the situation.
NBC was blissfully ignorant to Williams’ different versions of the same story. And, even when they were made aware by a public apology, they only decided to take action after Williams apologized on air. Whether or not NBC turned a blind eye to its star anchor, the network should be held accountable for not immediately addressing the situation.
NBC should have reacted the way CBS did when they were faced with a similar situation with Rather. In 2004, both the anchor and the network’s president, Andrew Heyward, issued an apology for relying on unverified documents claiming that President Bush received favorable treatment in the National Guard.
Major news outlets should prevent their anchors from becoming too recognizable of a figure. They should also stay away from allowing their anchors too much autonomy. Likewise, the anchors should remain level headed and avoid any kind of attention that undermines what should be their sole mission: to report the news accurately and fairly.
We believe Williams will get his second chance and return repentant for his actions. Let’s hope all news networks heed his example and prevent this from happening in the future.
Editorials represent the majority view of The Miami Hurricane editorial board.