Brian Williams has been benched for false reporting. But if media history tells us anything, he’ll be back. If only the newsroom were as forgiving of Black journalists who’ve made the same mistakes.
How many times will famous White non–Fox Network journalists get away with misrepresenting facts or outright fabricating stories, be allowed to apologize, take a time-out, and then return to being journalists as if the ethical breach never happened?
NBC has suspended anchorman Brian Williams for six months for false reporting. Williams and a few of his defenders have said he “made a mistake” when he lied about his frightening chopper ride during the Iraq War.
Williams—whose square jawline and ample hair that communicates to the world that he’s a Highly Credible Newsman—said, “I didn’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other,” as he tried to pass off his bold-faced lie as a mysterious mishap that overtook his brain.
Apparently sterner consequences were discussed at the network. “Senior NBC officials seriously considered firing anchor Brian Williams because he lied to his viewers about riding in a military helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq War, according to a top network official,” the Washington Post reported.
The Iraq War lie wasn’t Williams’s first time at the fictional “journalism” rodeo. According to the Washington Post, during Hurricane Katrina, “Williams had made several questionable claims in interviews and a documentary: He witnessed a suicide at the Superdome in New Orleans, saw a body floating by his hotel in the French Quarter, and had contracted dysentery from accidentally ingesting floodwater.”
An exaggeration? A mistake?
Um, noooo. A mistake is when you see a Kevin Costner movie about race or click on a weird story in your Facebook feed about how Joni Mitchell “experienced being a Black guy,” not padding your journalistic résumé with stories straight from Hollywood. At least Brian Williams did not commit a Rand Paul and lie about his college education. But clearly there is an epidemic of “mistakes” and “accidents” within the White-journalist establishment. Edward R. Murrow must be rolling over in his grave.
Recall ABC’s White House correspondent Jonathan Karl who was caught misattributing quotes in a story on Benghazi. “I regret the inaccuracies in my reporting,” he said. He still works at ABC.
New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd admitted to “inadvertently” plagiarizing. She still works at the Times.
Former Boston Globe reporter Mike Barnicle apologized for being a serial plagiarist and fraud. Yes, I said former Globe reporter, but not too worry he ain’t claiming unemployment. Barnicle is now a social and political commentator for MSNBC. Apparently, his apology (and whiteness) was a ticket to upward mobility.
Jonah Lehrer, a former science and technology reporter for Wired.com, was briefly at The New Yorker, before it was discovered that he’d plagiarized his own work from his previous job at Wired.com, and falsified quotes. He resigned from the magazine, and his book publisher had to withdraw two of his books from the market. In 2013, Lehrer publicly apologized in a speech given before the Knight Foundation, which paid him an honorarium of $20,000. That same year, Simon & Schuster announced they would be publishing his fourth book, The Book of Love (working title, no pub date yet), but one journalist at Slate alleged that Lehrer may have plagiarized sections of his book proposal from work by former New Yorker colleague, Adam Gopnik.
Then there’s the former L.A. Times reporter Ken Dilanian who let the CIA approve his stories prior to publication. He now works for the Associated Press.
And there are countless others who got second chances, inside and outside the newsroom, after publishing stories with “major factual errors” and plagiarizing, some of whom did it again, like Ruth Shalit: her first crime at the Washington Post, and then later at Salon and Elle. Plagiarist Lloyd Brown got fired from the Florida-Times Union, and then briefly worked for Jeb Bush, and has since written for small papers. The New Republic’s Stephen Glass fabricated as many as half of his articles, and was subsequently fired. He resurfaced to write about Canadian marijuana laws for Rolling Stone; published an autobiographical novel in 2003, ironically enough, about his experience as a fabricator at The New Republic, and saw a big exposé written about him in Vanity Fair, by H.G. Bissinger, that was expanded upon and turned into a best-selling book, Shattered Glass, and then a film, casting Hayden Christensen in the starring role.
You’d think honesty and integrity—the foundation of journalism—were no longer important, by how quickly so many of these reporters got to keep their jobs, got second chances, found new jobs. And many cases, some of these lying liars were even forgiven.
You may notice one common denominator here: They’re all White.
If only disgraced Black reporters like Janet Cooke, Patricia Smith, and Jayson Blair were cut such slack. Cooke, a former reporter for the Washington Post, had to return the Pulitzer Prize she won in 1981 for a heart-wrenching sham profile about an 8-year-old heroin addict named “Jimmy.” In 1998, Patricia Smith, a former Boston Globe columnist and Pulitzer Prize finalist was caught fabricating people and quotations in four of her columns. In 2003, the New York Times discovered that its young promising Blair had lied and fabricated his way through dozens of stories.
Once these three Black journalists were called out, they never got another byline at a mainstream news organization (Cooke did get a major movie deal for her Pulitzer-winning story,” which brought her out of poverty, but she hasn’t been heard from since). In fact, as UCLA journalism professor Neil Henry noted, in the aftermath of their ousting, many White reporters openly criticized affirmative-action policies for lowering “journalistic standards” across the country. They also used Smith, Cooke, and Blair as examples of the failures of diversity programs, which many news organizations had adopted in the decades after the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, which urged the press to hire more people of color and women to better serve the public interest.
As journalist Richard Prince has said over the years, a whole generation of Black journalists had to do penance for Smith, Cooke, and Blair’s transgressions. Editors told Black reporters that they didn’t trust their work. They were told to double-check their sources, or the editors often called sources themselves. Those applying for jobs were subjected to double scrutiny.
And newsroom diversity—in broadcast and print that was at least given lip service from the 1970s into the early 2000s is now nearly as extinct as dinosaurs.
If you’re a White journalist, plagiarism and fabrication are “instances of exaggeration.” But if you’re Black, they’d be viewed and punished as straight-up lies. If you’re White, you’ve made a mistake. But a Black journalist has actually committed fraud, and worse, is a FRAUD. No Black journalist would be able to get away with saying that something mysterious happened to their brain to cause confusion between what did and didn’t actually happen.
As with his predecessors, no one will claim that Brian Williams’s misdeeds will harm the status of all White males in the newsroom. His skin color won’t be cited as a reason behind the scandal, or as a distinct problem of his unethical character. Because as we’ve seen, it’s rare for established White males to lose their entire careers when they mess up due to a lapse in judgment—they find redemption. They may get sidelined for a while, even land new jobs or promotions. White privilege is all-powerful.
And perhaps the greatest privilege of all is being able to be viewed as an individual, as Williams is, not being viewed as a representative of White people or as White men. No one is questioning the competency or worth of White journalists. Nor is he dragging those like him down the tawdry path of deception. He is merely Brian Williams, responsible for his own actions.
But when a Black journalist like Patricia Smith, Janet Cooke, or Jayson Blair commit similar infractions, not only is their competency and their inherent worth called into question, but their screw-ups simply confirm what many White people have been claiming all along: that the Black journalists were simply affirmative action hires and quota-fillers, who were never truly qualified in the first place. And each Black journalist who survives the uphill climb to be considered for one of those plum positions is viewed through a professional lens forever tainted by those who fell from glory and took all Black people with them.
Face it, White journalists don’t have the pressure of breaking down barriers, lifting up their race, and proving their worth on modern, high-tech plantations. If Brian Williams and those like him trip, the door won’t close. For Black journalists, the door is barely open, and the slightest stumble will cause it to be locked and hermetically sealed for others for a very long time.
This also reflects the broader state of news, which blurs the lines between journalism and entertainment, between fact and fabrication, to create sensation and spectacle. So while Brian Williams deserves no sort of pass, NBC and the entire news entertainment industry must account for their responsibility. The neoliberal and corporate focus on ratings, entertainment, and commodity of spectacle produces a culture where the production of a certain reality is part and parcel with the news. Since the news is so much about creating news, we’re left with a culture that produces a space where truth is not a priority, but rather a casualty of the 24/7 news cycle and the never-ending quest for ratings.
As the Atlantic reported in 2013:
“The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) recently released its annual study on newsroom diversity … Despite claims by news organizations that they value and promote diversity, the numbers in this year’s study show 90 percent of newsroom supervisors from participating news organizations were White.
At a time when non-Whites make up roughly 37 percent of the U.S. population, the percentage of minorities in the newsroom has fallen to 12.37 percent from its 13.73 percent high in 2006 … fewer minorities are getting the opportunity to work in news, and news organizations are losing their ability to empower, represent, and—especially in cases where language ability is crucial—even to report on minority populations in their communities.”
So the case of Brian Williams is about much more than him as an individual. It is about the primary goal of entertainment within today’s news. Yet, his allergy to facts, to the truth in reporting, which has traditionally defined credible journalism, is about the drug of presumed White innocence.
To claim that he merely made a “mistake” underscores the powers resulting from White privilege. To call it an “accident” is to make clear that he doesn’t have to play by the rules. NBC circled the wagons and cut him slack as a way of propping up all the White people who made the decision about the price he’d pay for opting out of truth.
But when a Black journalist makes an error or bends the truth, it becomes a referendum on affirmative action, a reminder that Black people are still not viewed as fully human, as intelligent or capable or deserving as White people. Ever.
See, that’s how racism operates. White innocence means that lies reported and repeated don’t disrupt that presumption of innocence, doesn’t damage the benefit of the doubt. And when reality matches stereotypes with Black journalists ignoring fact for fiction, the collective brand of all Black journalists is damaged. It’s as if the bosses were waiting for the fuckup so they could nod and say, “See, I told you so.”
Some people may say: “But, Stacey, look at Lester Holt, a Black journalist now sitting in the anchor’s chair at NBC. Certainly that’s got to be considered a win for Black journalists and diversity in the newsroom, no?”
What Holt’s new perch means is that Black bodies always have to clean up after the mess created by Whites. Why did controversy have to occur in order for Holt to get the plum opportunity? And having just one person of color in a newsroom doesn’t amount to a substantive change or a cultural shift. The exception does not change the rule. Besides, time will tell if Holt is merely keeping the seat warm and bringing integrity back to NBC before Williams starts his redemption tour in 2015.
This is what White Supremacy looks like. It relies on the desire for White redemption and the different rules and standards applied to different races of journalists. The logic is that Whites can find redemption because they are White, that Whites are superior because they can be redeemed. If Whiteness equals intelligence, morals, and authentic journalistic integrity, then Brian Williams cannot be a liar; he must be seen as someone who made a mistake, with a brain under the influence of ambition.
I don’t know what drives journalists like Brian Williams to make shit up, but White innocence is a powerful drug. What would we all do if we were sure we wouldn’t experience drastic or dire consequences? What lines might we cross if there was no chance of being held accountable?
If race determines who is considered flawed versus who is hopeless and unworthy, it also plays into the popular notions of bootstrapping and hard work, and the morality of a nation who can forgive anything except for blackness. These notions gloss over racism to edify the Williamses of the world.
NBC thinks it’s creating a cushy slap-on-the-wrist for Williams, but in reality, they’re failing him by perpetuating racist double standards. They’re failing him by not holding him to a high standard and insisting that he uphold some level of journalistic integrity. They’re failing Brian Williams by perpetuating untruths and half-truths, to prop him up.
Don’t you find it strange that nobody—not a single solitary person—is saying, “What a shame about Brian Williams lying that way. Clearly we need to rethink all these White guys we’re hiring. Look at the problems they’re causing in the newsroom. They’re obviously not qualified for these jobs—they’re lowering the ethical standards of journalism.” Nobody has come out to say “We are sick of these White hacks besmirching the new industry. It is time to make some changes.”
On the heels of the Williams suspension, Little League Baseball announced it was stripping the Jackie Robinson Little League in Chicago of its national title because it played with kids from out-of-district. As commentators and the nation feign outraged, citing the rules, truthfulness, and morality, the truth of White supremacy was made clear.
The Jackie Robinson Little League should take their cue from Williams and simply note the residency issue was the result of “mistake” or a moment where someone’s brain was not computing. It was simply an “exaggeration.” Of course, we know that would never work because when it comes to Black journalists or Black Little League baseball teams the possibility of a mistake or the prospects of innocence is less likely than Brian Williams breaking bread with Newt Gingrich at their moon colony.
Yet again, we are reminded that it is easy out here being White. And that is the truth.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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