Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Fall of Journalism As a Principled Profession

While there's a sizable amount of schadenfreude involved, there is a sadness to the scandal surrounding NBC News anchor Brian Williams' fall from grace.

A lot of it has to do with the part of the scandal few are talking about: the failure of ethical behavior among the media profession.  The lack of quality control within what is a billion-dollar industry, with regards to offering a product - news - that ought to be factual and trustworthy.

The fact that NBC News was warned as far back as 2003 - during the Iraq War - that Brian Williams was "embellishing" the story about his being under fire highlights the problems within an industry that barely polices its own and ignores warning signs in the pursuit of "the hot story" and the Eternal-Loving Almighty Salacious Scoop.

It's worse than wanting to be the next Woodward and Bernstein (who at least vetted their reporting efforts even as they pursued the "hot" story of Watergate, which wasn't that hot until another year into their investigating).  It's wanting to be the next Drudge (who lived, still lives, for the rumor and innuendo of political sniping), and working a story to look credible enough to anchor a nightly news channel.

The paradox of modern journalism is how "personality" and "celebrity" - being the cool guy of the moment - has to blend with the credibility of being an "accurate" and "fair/balanced" reporter of the facts.  In theory there shouldn't be any conflict between those two sides of journalism.  In practice, the desire for the fame (celebrity) keeps trumping the professional and ethical requirement of being a reporter (accuracy).

The pursuit of celebrity makes someone like Brian Williams work harder at the image - such as making himself look like a fearless, hard-nosed war-front reporter surviving the risks of a rocket attack on a helicopter convoy that didn't really happen to him - to where the need to keep telling the story grows, with the story growing with it.  Up until the point the Truth - not just the spiritual or relative truth, but the factual truth - turns out to be not what he was telling at all.  What's incredible here is that it took over 11 years for the accountability surrounding all this to catch up to him and to the news channel paying him $50 million for his celebrity and not his reporting...

I highlighted this point before: there is no accountability for being wrong.  Well, there may be some accountability now for Williams at least.  In most respects, Williams isn't getting punished for mishandling a news report, or issuing ill-informed opinions on political issues.  Williams is getting punished for aggrandizement, for promoting himself falsely as a courageous newsman therefore deserving of respect or trust.  While there's no evidence (yet) that Williams has committed the mortal sins of mis-reporting or lying - attempts to discredit his stories about seeing bodies floating during the Katrina disaster haven't gone anywhere yet - he's committed the mortal sin of Doubt.  Because we can't trust him when he talks about his personal actions, we can't trust him when he tries to tell us about the economy or a government scandal or even the weather.

As I wrote earlier, your plumber is better vetted than your news host.  This debacle with Williams is just one more proof of that.

What is happening now, the real scandal here, is the lack of accountability for the entire media/journalism profession.  The news channels that failed to vet their staff... the editors that failed to rein in egos and stick to the reports... fellow reporters and media celebrities who kept up with the embellishments and enabled Williams - and themselves - to keep selling each other as people they weren't...

From my years studying for journalism as a college degree, one of the things debated was the importance of retaining trust in the readership and the audience.  Whenever a story was mis-reported it was vital to get a correction printed or stated as soon as possible.  Journalists were liable in matters of defamation and libel if we got "facts" about people wrong.  Any irresponsible report from us could have hurt or killed people.  If we lost the audience's faith in the facts we try to present, they won't believe us the next time when the reporting was accurate and important.  These were serious matters.

Nowadays, I don't see much interest or focus in accuracy AND honesty.  The cable news channels bring on talking head guests who are not experts on the topics discussed.  There's a rush to report something scandalous only to find out hours later the reports were wrong... only for the reporters to either ignore the facts to report the rumor, or worse double down on the rumor to make the story even more scandalous.  The quality of reporting, of journalism, has slipped.  The quality of journalists has slipped as well.

There's been a push towards inserting the reporter into the narrative: a means to personalize a report, but fraught with the risks of bias and conjecture and the same embellishments that Brian Williams deployed.  The reporter becomes the story - in part or in full - rather than an impartial witness.  Losing that impartiality makes it harder for the reporter - and the media institution backing that reporter - to step back when the story proves false or wrong.  It's been one of the key reasons the Stephen Glass scandal was so huge... and it's been so horrifying how the journalism industry quickly ignored the lessons of that.

Journalism was, ought to be, an honorable profession: it's supposed to keep the public informed and forewarned.  It's supposed to check against the lies of those in power - the leaders of government or a corporation or a church or any institution threatened by corruption - with cold hard facts.  It's not like that now.  Because it lacks accountability, in a timely and just and appropriate manner.

We've got professions that require certification and has authority to punish misconduct.  Lawyers and doctors have ethics boards (and can get disbarred / lose their licenses), teachers have certification boards, plumbers have associations and unions (and government regs where they haven't been gutted yet).  Journalists need the same thing.  There ought to be standards, a code of behavior, something to ensure the public can keep the faith with us when it comes to the facts.

P.S. It does not help that the most trusted person reporting the news is a comedian anchoring a satirical news review show.  And it does not help that today Jon Stewart announced that he's leaving The Daily Show by year's end.  AAAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGHHHhhhhhhhhh...

P.S.S. We will not get to hear Brian Williams rap to Ludacris after all.

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