I hope Brian Williams has Olivia Pope’s number, because this is the definition of a journalistic scandal.
Truth is the cornerstone of journalism. Every media ethical code instructs us to be honest, which Williams did not.
Admiration for Williams aside, lying about a major event and experience in any context is wrong. And I think everyone, including Williams, agrees.
I do not think there is much I can add to the debate on whether the popular anchor should be trusted to report the news from now on. I believe that it is in the hands of NBC at this point. What I do feel comfortable offering thoughts on is the role of social media in the controversy.
Social media is the new watchdog for the original watchdogs, and this past week is confirmation.
The past: Brian Williams reported from Iraq in 2003. During that time he flew in a military helicopter. The same time he rode in said helicopter there were shots fired from the ground. Originally Williams said these shots hit the aircraft in front of him. Over time the story changed saying that the helicopter he was in was hit. Facebook didn’t exist.
The present: On January 30th, Williams recalled the story once more on NBC Nightly News in an attempt to honor Wayne Downing, who was with him during the event. A group of military personnel (that was with Williams during the attack) took to Facebook saying that Williams’ story was not entirely true. On Wednesday Williams apologized for the incident. Social media erupted.
The future: So what’s next? The public is calling for the removal of Williams. Colleagues are supporting and condemning the anchor. At this point, everything is up in the air. Social media is still freaking out.
If Williams would have told the skewed tale right after the event in 2003 I am certain the same group would have questioned him. However, I am also certain that the reaction would not have been as quick or quite this large. Social media has acted as a catalyst throughout the scandal.
The original questioning of the story happened on Facebook (see below). Media contacted those who spoke out online. The military newspaper, Stars and Stripes, reported the incident.
Twitter started bashing Williams creating hashtags and memes about the “misremembrance.” Some of my favorites are featured below.
In 2003 this would have unfolded a lot differently. The inaccuracies would have been revealed in time but certainly not in this manner.
The world is changing, media is changing, the ability to sneak out and not have your mom catch you because of a tweet is changing. Williams was caught with his pants down and the social media watchdogs called him out.
What does this say about media, once hailed has the justice seeking, fourth branch of government meant to check and balance the dirty politicians of the world?
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly:
Social media promotes truth and accuracy in reporting. By catching mistakes and holding journalists accountable they are insuring honest reports. This is good.
Media has reached a point where the need to create buzz outweighs the responsibility to tell the truth. Social media drives this with outrageous stories based on misrepresentation strictly meant to attract viewers. The pressure news outlets feel to be “shared” and “liked” more than competitors puts immense stress on journalists to find the most sensational story. Unfortunately, that can lead to falsities. This is bad.
It is scary. The public does not trust media and this can only make it worse. This is ugly.
While I am truly sad that a role model of mine has made such a horrendous mistake he has to be held accountable for the sake of journalistic integrity. This will certainly be a turning point in the industry and discussed for years to come.