When you get the facts wrong, is it always a lie? And does it matter?
NBC News anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for six months for not telling the truth about being fired upon while in a helicopter in Iraq. But did he tell a lie and thus undermine his credibility as a journalist? Or did his memory fail him?
There’s a difference. And how that’s explained also makes a difference.
In a prescient New York Times essay in December, two psychologists wrote that people put too much faith in their memories. Case in point: Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson had spoken on numerous occasions about how he recalled President George W. Bush making a statement that proved that the commander-in-chief was prejudiced against Islam. Bush never said the words that Tyson often quoted.
Bush himself remembered seeing on TV the first plane crash on 9/11 into the north tower of the World Trade Center, the psychologists wrote. In fact, he was in a schoolroom. Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of being fired at while in Bosnia, and that didn’t happen, either.
People, famous and not, get their memories mixed up. They’re human. And so is Brian Williams. How one responds when challenged makes all the difference.
Williams apologized on air, but questions remained about his ethics. His bosses at NBC News said nothing for nearly a week until they suspended him on Feb. 10.
Those executives failed to confront the problem. Yes, they too would have faced questioning and criticism. But would that have been worse than what happened: have a story drag on for days; allow competitors to take easy – if not cheap – shots at NBC’s integrity; and enable social media participants to bash NBC News without fear of contradiction?
No. That’s the price paid for the duck-and-cover approach. Every day – every hour in the world of TV news – that you don’t respond, speculation increases. Your competitors and enemies seize the moment to attack and inflict as much damage as possible.
NBC News would have done well to follow Tyson’s example: As the psychologists wrote and any good public relations professional will tell you, “Stop stonewalling, admit error, note that such things happen, apologize and move on.”
by Todd Templin