By Reuben Schafir
CatlinSpeak (Portland, Oregon)
On Tuesday, Feb. 10, NBC News head anchor Brian Williams was suspended for six months without pay. Following his on-air apology addressing his over-exaggeration of an experience he had while reporting in Iraq in 2003.
“I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago … I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft,” stated Williams in his apology. He claimed that, “This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran.”
Williams is not the first person to exaggerate his stories from war time on air. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton lied about her experience in Bosnia in 2008. However, journalists are held to a higher ethical standard than politicians due to the code of ethics.
In light of the suspension, questions have arisen about whether or not Williams was punished appropriately. Most arguments assert he should be fired, while others say he was punished too severely.
Those that say Williams needs to be fired, such as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, state that Williams is a journalist who clearly acted unethically, destroying his credibility and should not be trusted.
However, as of yet, no major news outlet has published any articles saying that William’s punishment was too severe. Now perhaps that’s partly because major news outlets are highly trusted corporations who couldn’t publish a headline saying “NBC News Anchor Brian Williams Punished too Severely After Lying on Air,” without making themselves look bad.
Of course, maybe it’s because most major news outlets all follow the Associate Press values and style guidelines and realize that what Williams did is highly unethical and blatantly violates the journalistic code of ethics.
NBC’s code of ethics appears to be simply nonexistent, at least to the public. So while it may be difficult to tell exactly where Williams went wrong according to NBC’s ethical guidelines, he should be held to the same standard as any journalist.
“We abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions,” states the AP Stylebook.
Williams’ ever-changing story presented both inaccuracies and a very clear distortion of the events that took place in Iraq. The AP Statement of News Values and Principles goes on to state, “we will not knowingly introduce false information into material intended for publication or broadcast.”
The details of whether or not Williams knowingly and intentionally lied or whether his story was the result of a distortion of his memory are of course a grey area. He of course claims it was “a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” while what is perhaps more likely is that Williams, like every politician who has done similar things, altered his story so it made him appear more attractive.
When William’s told the story (such as on David Letterman) involving him and the helicopter, he was not mis-reporting news, rather that he was telling a personal story.
This argument, however, holds no water. In 2010, MSNBC news anchor Keith Olbermann was suspended after donating money to Democratic campaigns. Olbermann’s donation was unrelated to his job yet that showed some sort of bias, so he was suspended. Williams was a trusted face, someone who people thought would tell them the truth.
It’s essential not to overlook the plain and simple facts of what happened. Williams acted unethically and violated the ethical standards of journalism, and in doing so discredited his name and his desk. There’s no doubt that he has done some fine journalistic work in the past, and may continue to: however his actions have certainly called into question his previous reporting, and should make viewers wary of content to come.
When Williams lied, even if it wasn’t in his capacity as an NBC News anchor, he immediately discredited himself, and should no longer be trusted.
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