Can Brian Williams salvage his career?

In a word … no.

At least not as the face of NBC News.

Brian Williams got caught fabricating his field coverage of the war in Iraq, which then called into question his coverage of Hurricane Katrina. He danced around his fibs by calling them memory lapses.

Ummm…yeah.

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So he’s now on unpaid leave and I’m sure the network bigwigs are wringing their hands trying to figure out what to do. Before his gaffe, Williams was pretty popular with those who still tune in to the nightly news. But now? Now, I think he has to step away from his seat at the evening news desk because he broke public trust and without trust a journalist has got nothing.

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Journalism isn’t really about writing. Sure, it helps if you have a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary. But really good journalists aren’t just folks who know how to turn a phrase. They love the truth. They love it so much that they are willing to wade through the muck of politics, brave wars and natural disasters, and sit through hours of courtroom testimony to tell the public what is happening — in most cases for not much money and crappy hours. If the public thinks a journalist is full of it, well, then that reporter better just hang up his or her hat. It’s over.

Trust is a tenuous thing and it’s not easy to get it back. When I started the education beat, the paper I worked for hired a “consultant” to improve our readership score. His big idea was we shouldn’t go to local government meetings. We should follow-up the next day with the people who ran these meetings and find in-depth stories to pursue.

This is one of those things that sounds good in theory but pretty much sucks in real life. As part of this master plan, I was told to deliberately skip out on a school board meeting even though that board was in the midst of upheaval. I called the superintendent the next day and she ran down what happened at the meeting. It was all pretty generic and she didn’t offer much to pursue later. Hmmm….

My very lame followup story ran that afternoon. I was embarrassed when a reader called to chew me out because I had failed to mention the big blow up between board members over an issue that the superintendent had conveniently left out of our conversation. The reader was convinced I was in cahoots with the superintendent and that I’d lied by omission.

Ouch.

I learned a valuable lesson that day. You can bet your backside I was at the next school board meeting to see for myself what was happening. I wasn’t really mad at the superintendent. I mean, would you tell a reporter that your board was in revolt if you didn’t have to? I was mad at myself. I couldn’t really put my name on these stories if all I was going to do was be a mouthpiece for my contacts.  I needed to know the truth.

Truth matters. Whether it’s what you say or what you don’t say. You owe it to your readers to tell the truth of what happened. Not what you would have liked to have happened. Not what sounds sexy or what sells. Just the truth.

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The sad thing is that so many journalists today no longer see truth as the duty they carry. From Rolling Stones’ questionable story about a campus rape to reporters using the news for their personal agendas, truth often is no longer the goal. No wonder journalists have found themselves below bankers when it comes to public perception of honesty.

And that’s unfortunate for the future of the Fourth Estate, an industry still in a tailspin in this Internet age. Truth is the commodity that journalists sell; we can’t let a few bad apples spoil it for the rest.

 

 

 

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