The media is frothing over NBC's Brian Williams and his apparently imagineered memories of being shot out of the sky in Iraq. The scandal now has Williams sidelined — by his own choice, he claims — and the veteran anchor appears to be fighting for his professional life.
The original story that got Williams in trouble had no partisan context and didn't take place in the final weeks of a presidential election, as did the scandal that felled Dan Rather in 2004. At the time, no one thought to challenge Williams' claims about a helicopter he was on being shot down, other than the service members present, who tried repeatedly to get NBC News to correct the record. Instead of exploding immediately, this simmered for almost 12 years before a final retelling of a false story got a traditional news outlet — Stars and Stripes and veteran reporter Travis Tritten — to debunk Williams' story and call into question a network anchor's credibility.
Then the floodgates opened for everyone to check Williams' other reporting for personal exaggeration and/or fabulism. Williams' reporting on his personal travails in the French Quarter during Hurricane Katrina now faces serious scrutiny, as the dire conditions he claims to have endured don't match up well with the recollections of others who were there. Williams appears to have wildly exaggerated the risks he ran during Israel's war with Hezbollah in 2006. Furthermore, there are questions being raised as to NBC News' participation in publishing an exaggerated account of the 2003 helicopter incident, as well as their knowledge of Williams' habit of expanding anecdotes into tall tales, even as they recently gave him a lucrative new five-year contract.
Journalists and news organizations rely on establishing credibility and trust with their audience, which is even more necessary when doing first-person reporting of the kind news anchors often do from crisis locations, such as New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq. That's why the scrutiny that Williams now faces is totally warranted.
Apparently, not everyone sees it that way. They see unfairness of this public exercise in accountability. They see a feeding frenzy, or perhaps even a kangaroo court forming in the heat of the controversy.
Mediaite's Dan Abrams, who worked with Williams at NBC, decries the "obsession" to claim Williams' "head." He declares himself "troubled by the fervor, occasional glee, and potentially disproportionate fury emanating from an … alliance of certain capital-J journalists, conservative bloggers, and some who simply despise any rich and famous journalist."
Ron Fournier offered a different kind of scolding over the scrutiny and criticism Williams is receiving. Calling it "the bile brigade," the National Journal columnist quoted former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau in lamenting, "No wonder we never get shit done." Fournier acknowledged the legitimacy of the criticism of Williams, but said "the coverage has an End Times vibe." Social media was intended for "a more vibrant public discussion … to educate and unite the masses," Fournier argued, and not for the "bile brigade."
I respect and enjoy the work of both Abrams and Fournier, especially their engagement with new media. But their defense of Williams shows that the traditional media has still not become accustomed to consumers with platforms to hold them accountable for their performance.
The "bile brigade" consists of people who watch, read, and listen to news, and who want to have it delivered by people and organizations who tell the truth. When they discover that the top man in one organization not only has fudged the truth on a story he reported but done so for more than a decade, and that the news organization itself knew that a problem existed and did nothing about it, those consumers will be just as unhappy as when they buy a car with defects that the manufacturer knew but ignored to protect its profit.
The idea that we don't get stuff done because of the vibrant debate over accountability is a very strange argument coming from a media that styles itself as a check on power. Most people are perfectly capable of multitasking, juggling many different news stories and understanding them while living their lives. The new media outlets parsing out Williams' other reporting are also analyzing legislation, debating policies, and doing other work besides arguing the finer points of "Deflategate," another of the distractions that Fournier laments.
Besides, if getting stuff done depended so heavily on media performance, doesn't it make sense to hold that media to the highest standards? Williams is not a victim here, and neither was Rather in 2004. Both suffered the natural consequences of their own actions. The accountability that the age of new media allows should produce a higher level of performance from those entrusted by audiences to inform them properly — and those who profess to believe in checks on power should at least cheer the necessarily messy process that produces that accountability. Rather than get angry at the "bile brigade," we should apply some anger and outrage to the BS brigade instead.