I learned journalism basics at college in the late 80s.
1) Ask the five “W” questions. Who, what, when, where, and why. Sometimes “how.”
2) Report the facts. Stories have many sides, and the people involved all have a personal agenda. Cut the fluff from the facts and deliver the closest version of “the truth” as possible.
3) Get quotes from involved parties. Quotes may or may not be factual. Quotes are simply one person’s side of the story.
4) Don’t put yourself in the story. A true journalist is invisible, a fly on the wall.
That last rule has become increasingly blurred over the last 30 years, and the latest to forget is “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams.
I feel bad for Williams. For the last decade he delivered the news on NBC in admirable fashion. He read the words on the teleprompter and occasionally colored those words with appropriate emotional flavor. But when Brian Williams goes off-script, troubles begin.
Williams was recently suspended without pay for six months after it was revealed he lied about a war story during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Further digging showed Williams embellished stories on several occasions, including his coverage of Hurricane Katrina.
Like a geeky high school kid, Brian Williams lied so he could look cool. But in a world where privacy is a farce and fact checking is easy, it’s hard to get away with monkey business or tall tales.
You can’t completely blame Williams for gilding the lily. Coolness was one of the traits imbued upon him by his handlers at NBC, along with sharp suits and white teeth. They encouraged Williams to yuk it up with late night hosts, from Jimmy Fallon to David Letterman.
What’s Brian Williams supposed to talk about on Letterman? He’s got to be as interesting as Anderson Cooper and Matt Lauer! The NBC brass seemed to support Williams’ appearances. Perhaps Williams was being groomed to take over a late-night job himself one day.
But that seems unlikely now. Williams is being called a raconteur, a spinner of yarns, a teller of tales. Being a raconteur is great if you’re putting on a one-man theatre show (or if you’re a newspaper columnist), but if you’re being paid to be a truth-teller, there’s a problem.
At the time of this writing, there’s talk Williams might be fired from NBC. The New York Post claims to have found an important “morals clause” in Williams contract which reads:
“If artist commits any act or becomes involved in any situation, or occurrence, which brings artist into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or which justifiably shocks, insults or offends a significant portion of the community, or if publicity is given to any such conduct, company shall have the right to terminate.”
But the language used points out exactly why Williams shouldn’t be fired. He’s an “artist,” not a reporter or a “journalist.”
The immediacy and intimacy of social media has changed the boundaries of modern journalism. The public-at-large, equipped with trusty smartphones, is an army of “imbedded reporters” (see the rise of CNN’s iReports and the ever-expanding blogosphere) and “real journalists” have become news-readers, color commentators, and “television personalities.”
Journalists — from Katie Couric to Perez Hilton — are a new kind of modern celebrity. (So are rich housewives and duck hunters. What happened to our standards? Didn’t celebrities used to have to be good at something exceptional or impressive?)
The problem really isn’t Brian Williams’ attention-seeking fables, but a media machine and news-consuming public that demands our anchors be dashing adventure–seekers, physically beautiful, intelligent, funny, opinionated, witty, relentless investigators, and good on camera. It’s a lot to ask. Brian Williams did his best to stay afloat in the brackish waters where journalism and entertainment meet, but was sunk by one-to-many big fish stories.