Monday, February 09, 2015

Brian Williams, Journalists Lying, and The Moral Superiority of Public Relations

OK. The headline of this blog was a bit sensational and an obvious attempt at click bait. But a poor blogger has to do something to keep up with the big boys at Rock Center to grab some eyeballs. Do me a solid and read on.

Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News has taken himself off the air voluntarily for a few days because of his unfortunate episode of, to quote him directly, "misremembering" some facts related to report he did on the Iraq War.

Apparently he said he was in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by enemy fire, and military veterans called him out on that. His statements when covering Hurricane Katrina are now also called into question, according to an article in USA Today, one of many national media stories on the subject.

Leave aside the fact that reporting should not be done from memory. Does not a journalist take notes or record when "reporting"? One wonders what else Mr. Williams may have fabricated in his recently celebrated 10 years in the anchor chair at NBC. Were he not an employee of this fabled (pun most definitely intended) network, Dateline NBC would be putting the finishing touches on a graphic for an expose called "Brian Williams: Decade of Deception."

But let's ease up on Brian Williams a little. After all, he's not the only national journalist to lie. Dan Rather over at CBS has his own wikipedia entry for his famous fabrication about George Bush's military background. Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Jayson Blair at the New York Times, and others are recounted in this Yahoo new media round up of old media journalism liars.

I have practiced both journalism and public relations. Now I teach public relations. And what I hear a lot is how public relations lacks ethics, and implied is how righteous journalists are by comparison.

So let's pause and reflect on this "teachable moment," shall we?

Any profession has good and bad practitioners. In PR, there are some who are intentionally deceptive or do other unethical deeds. But it would be unethical and intellectually dishonest to indict the entire profession. That is especially the case when a lot of research shows that unethical PR deeds are usually committed by non-PR professionals--lawyers, marketers, CEOs--or by people with no bonafide training or degree in PR. In fact, some of the largest whoppers of unethical PR are committed by former journalists (eg. Burson-Marsteller's smear campaign of Google for client Facebook). 

A lot of the criticism of PR is co-mingled with a phobic anti-corporate sentiment. But, we must keep in mind that NBC, CBS and other major national journalistic enterprises are also corporations. Big corporations. They shamelessly promote their various interests on their own programs. And they compete with each other relentlessly. They need attention, to have an audience to sell to advertisers, whom they want to charge ever more money.

There are a variety of reasons journalists may lie. Business competitive pressure. An ideological worldview contrary to the person or party they cover. Or simple ego to succeed.

The point is, they lie. We don't even know about all the times they lie. To insinuate that the institution of journalism has any moral high ground over the profession of public relations is just another lie.

Professions are neutral. It's the professionals who vary in their ethics. Brian Williams is the latest evidence of this. It's probably only a matter of time before we have more.

In the meantime, we all get to watch NBC and Mr. Williams engage in some public relations, as they seek to manage this crisis, work on image restoration and re-build the NBC brand. Now THAT should be good television.


1 comment:

Dave said...

Tim,

Dave W. here.

You buried the lead of what perhaps should have been your nut graph in the second-to-last paragraph:

"Professions are neutral. It's the professionals who vary in their ethics."