Get it right.
That’s every responsible journalist’s creed, the raison d’être of an industry that needs the public to trust the accuracy of every fact we present if we want every story we tell to mean something.
That’s what it takes to match actions with ideals, to get it right and to continue striving to get it right, day after day, story after story. Journalists make mistakes. They stumble. They fall. That’s why corrections are published, apologies aired – to get the story right and to assure the public we value truth.
NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams didn’t just fail to get it right when he embellished a war story from 2003. He made it wrong. Over and over.
Now comes the fallout, both lingering and explosive, as summarized in a New York Times headline over Alessandra Stanley’s TV Watch column: “After a Decade Building Trust, One Wrong Move by an Anchor Starts a Firestorm.”
Get it right.
Williams didn’t do that and now NBC’s mission morphs into something bigger and more difficult: Make it Right.
That’s what NBC News President Deborah Turness says the network is trying to do, pledging in a statement issued Friday to investigate the events to “make sense of all that has transpired.”
Get it right.
That’s what the Stars & Stripes newspaper set out to do after Editor Terry Leonard read a Facebook thread that questioned the accuracy of a story Williams has recounted publicly many times. (Full disclosure: Terry Leonard is my husband.) Stripes reporter Travis Tritten then was assigned to dig through the conflicting reports, to excavate the truth.
For more than 10 years, Williams said he was in a helicopter forced down by enemy fire during the 2003 military invasion in Iraq. Now we know, thanks to Tritten’s work, that wasn’t true. Even the version Williams told after admitting his original account was untrue drew criticism for being misleading by making it sound like he was closer to a chopper that was shot down than he actually was.
So others, including media critics, columnists and reporters such as Tritten, labor to get the facts right, to set the record straight because, well, that’s what journalists are supposed to do.
Howard Kurtz , writing Friday on FoxNews.com, highlighted how the quagmire dragging down Williams and undermining NBC’s quest to protect and restore the network’s credibility goes back to journalism basics.
“The first rule when you make a mistake, especially one of this magnitude, is to stop the bleeding by getting the facts out,” Kurtz wrote. “But Williams seems to have done the opposite, prompting more criticism. And NBC’s no-comment stance just reinforces the notion that the network wants the controversy to magically disappear.”
Williams is being labeled “Lyin’ Brian.” He’s been pilloried and even pitied by colleagues. Some are calling for him to be fired. Variety, the entertainment newspaper, published a list of possible successors.
“How could you expect anyone who served in the military to ever see this guy on screen again and not feel contempt?” wrote Baltimore Sun media columnist David Zurawik. “How could you expect anyone to believe he or the broadcast he leads has any credibility?”
Others are trying to figure out what could have made Williams do what he did.
Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer, wrote that “the human tendency to juice our stories is universal.” He maintains that people regularly lie about their military experiences.
But Shafer isn’t excusing Williams, just acknowledging facts while cutting to the core of why I think Williams’ behavior is troubling as well as damaging to him, his network and even the industry at large: “Journalists adhere to the same traditional story forms that other, more fanciful tellers use, but with the proviso that they don’t embellish. This is the journalistic commandment that Williams broke.”
When I got my start with The Associated Press as a newswoman in the Omaha bureau, an AP veteran offered important advice. He told me stories needed to get out as soon as possible, but they had to be accurate. There were no degrees of accuracy, he said. There could be no excuses. Each fact in my story would either be right or wrong. If any fact was wrong, my story would be worthless, my credibility and the news agency’s credibility tarnished.
What a huge responsibility, I thought. What an immense challenge.
Every day, in so many ways, responsible journalists push themselves to get a story right, delving into files while on deadline to double-check a fact or dialing number after number to get a source to confirm a detail that ultimately could expose a public figure’s criminal behavior.
If they get something wrong, they then must get it right. We need readers, viewers and listeners to believe we won’t stop until we print or air the truth, the complete truth.
With the free flow of information vital to a democracy, the news must be trusted, the sources credible. These ideals are ingrained in our culture.
In “The Newsroom,” an HBO drama series, the fictional Atlantis Cable Network is embroiled in crisis after discovering that a producer altered a source’s quote to support an erroneous report that the military had used chemical weapons in an attack. That producer was fired. Then the anchorman, another producer and the head of the news division announce plans to resign for failing to prevent the inaccurate report, leading to an emotional showdown with the owner of the network, played by Jane Fonda.
“We don’t have the trust of the public anymore,” thunders the news executive, played by Sam Waterston.
“Get it back!” Fonda’s character fires back.
Again and again, that central journalistic ideal comes back around: Get it right. If necessary, make it right. Not every journalist lives up to these ideals. But for those who are dedicated and responsible, the goal of protecting and promoting truth remains paramount.
In the Williams case, many journalists have been getting it right.
Newspapers, networks and industry watchdogs have exposed, analyzed and criticized, scrutinizing his coverage of other events and refusing to accept misleading explanations.
Journalists are holding Williams to high standards. They are fulfilling their responsibilities by doing so.
We are policing our own.