Don’t shoot (just) the messenger
in Williams’ fall from grace
By Megan Fromm, CJE
When Brian Williams apologized on air for misremembering his involvement in a direct-fire incident during the Iraq war, critics and media pundits alike were quick to toss him off his pedestal. We may never know whether Williams intentionally misled his audience or truly suffered from a lapse in memory (and judgment), but we would be remiss to blame only Williams for the gross journalistic error.
What happened behind the scenes? Where were the producers? The writers? The fact checkers? Where was the team of journalistic watchdogs looking out not only for the viewers but also for the reputation of one of their own? Williams’ fall from grace was as much their misstep as his own, and we must reconcile that or face repeating our mistakes in the future.
And while we’re making a list of those responsible for this mess, let’s be sure to leave a few blank spaces for us, the average news consumer. The media have been so quick to crucify Williams, but so far as I can tell, they are missing another crucial point: we, the audience, led him to this moment. We pushed him to the edge of his journalistic sensibilities, and we dared him to look over the abyss. As the Washington Post reports, Williams “wanted to both report and entertain,“ and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Today’s news audience demands this duplicity, and in fact, it is the only kind of “journalism” we reward with our attention, our money, and our clicks. We really just want our headline news from Jon Stewart, but we settle for Williams because in some ways it makes us feel better about our news consumption. So, we don’t mind when a journalist gets too personal, or when he or she becomes too much a part of the story. We keep moving the line in the sand about how close is too close. And in those moments, the audience becomes complicit in the choices news media make to vie for our attention.
Striving to meet the expectations of an increasingly fractured and disinterested news audience—while simultaneously aiming for unrealistic profit margins—has encouraged the largest news organizations to dangle precipitously close to the edge of their journalistic morality. It almost comes as no surprise, then, that some lose their footing.
So while it’s easy to criticize Williams for his mistakes (and yes, we should), let’s not forget the part we, as news consumers, have played in this debacle. Sometimes, news is boring. Sometimes, after countless RPGs have been fired on American troops, one more becomes “just another news day.” But that reality exists because too many citizens have abdicated their responsibility to know what’s happening in the world around them regardless of whether it’s inherently sexy, interesting, or tabloid-worthy.
In the case of Brian Williams, it turns out no one really shot the messenger, so perhaps we shouldn’t, either. At least not without looking in the mirror first.