I’ve been concerned about NBC’s Brian Williams for a little while now. This was before the scandal broke about his now-retracted statements regarding what happened when he was in Iraq in 2003, before he was the focus of an internal NBC investigation, and before he decided to take a leave of absence from the anchor desk.
Though they’re incredible examples of editing, I’ve harbored quiet disdain for Williams’ rap mash ups (like this version of Rapper’s Delight) that air on The Tonight Show. Then there’s his slow jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon. I was even uncomfortable with Williams hosting Saturday Night Live all the way back in 2007.
I don’t like seeing local and national news celebrities playing themselves in TV shows and movies, either. It makes me suspicious of their motives. I start worrying that they’re more concerned about feeding their egos — “Look at me! Look what I’m doing! I’m famous!” — and less concerned about serving the public with news and information, a core responsibility of journalism.
While covering massive devastation after Haiti’s earthquake in 2010, several news correspondents (who also happened to have medical backgrounds) were criticized when it seemed they were blurring the lines between medical work and reporting obligations. I don’t have a problem with a journalist who has medical knowledge lending a helping hand during intense periods of human suffering. But when a television network airs footage of its own reporter conducting medical examinations or surgeries, the situation changes. Then it’s about promotion. Then it’s about ego.
Succumbing to ego is nothing new in journalism. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst essentially get exclusive credit for creating the Yellow Journalism era of the 1890s. The truth, public trust, and their own reputations were casualties during their escalating war of egos. It was ego that got Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass into so much trouble. When the journalist becomes bigger than the story, bigger than the public she or he is serving, bigger than the journalistic process itself, then it’s time to stop calling yourself a journalist.
The journalists I admire don’t seek fame. They don’t seek face time. They don’t seek celebrity. They seek the truth. They seek understanding. They seek the stories that need to be told because no one else is telling them. If they become famous because of the quality of their work, they use their higher profiles as tools to tackle bigger projects.
I hope things work out for Brian Williams. I think he’s personable and could still have some great journalism ahead of him. But while he’s taking a break from the NBC News anchor desk, I hope he decides to take a permanent break from the NBC Entertainment division, as well.
NBC suspended Brian Williams for six months without pay on Feb. 10.