Journalists, Lawyers, and Brian Williams's 'Misremembering'

If we are to judge by what the nighttime opinion hosts on cable TV are saying, a great number of them are feeling very sorry for Brian Williams, who was suspended from NBC for six months without pay Tuesday for misrepresenting the facts of certain stories on the NBC Nightly News. On her Fox News show The Kelly File Wednesday, Megyn Kelly and the indefatigable Lanny Davis discussed the phenomenon of “misremembering” like lawyers, which they both are, rather than journalists. Kelly opined that some people, when they’ve heard a familiar story many more times than once, begin to believe they were part of that story rather than only having heard about it.

Most journalists, especially those with significant experience, would beg to differ.

A lawyer might reflect that twenty different people might tell twenty different versions of a single incident, with none of them being absolutely correct. A journalist, on the other hand, might ideally say there’s only version of the truth, and present a story that is substantially similar to other news stories about the same incident. 

What Kelly and Davis fail to remember is that journalists are practiced observers, and very familiar with the standards of their particular media. Newspapers might deal in more detail than the broadcast media, but both offer essentially the same aspects of common stories.

In most instances, even in the smallest of markets, a reporter might be able to get away with a single instance of “misremembering,” or as it might be more appropriately called in Williams’ case, exaggeration. But any more than that and he or she would, or should, be fired.

The odds of that happening, however, are diametrically opposed to the amount of money a particular reporter could generate for a newspaper or television station. The cub reporter on the newspaper, in other words, is more likely to be fired than the lead anchor on a television station. 

Brian Williams earned his network tens of millions of dollars every year. And, in addition to being the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, Williams was also its managing editor.  That means few, if any people, oversaw his reporting.

Appearing on a national television network every night and being able to say virtually anything  must be a temptation. Are we to forgive Williams for apparently giving in to that temptation and “re-imagining” the truth of what happened during certain events he covered? 

Whatever the reason for it, Williams should never be allowed to report the news again. Life is virtual enough already. NBC apparently realized that the American public would ultimately reject an anchor who deliberately reported untruths more than once. 

Plenty of people have complained about the material in the media – that it is slanted in one political direction or the other, that it is “dumbed down,” and that it fails to address stories that aren’t “sexy” but nevertheless provoke geopolitical changes and complications.

It used to be that journalism wasn’t a show. Reporters had to cover boring stories, like city council meetings. Today, even newspapers don’t cover local council meetings or courts like they used to, by allowing a single reporter to devote a significant part of a day to sit through a meeting or a trial and sift through what was news and what wasn’t.  It’s too expensive,  and yes, no matter its import, too boring.  Networks still have congressional correspondents, but the connections they make on the job aren’t trumpeted unless they’ve developed a flashy lead. 

With computers, tablets and smart phones at hand, Americans can’t be troubled or expected to read dull news or even watch a three-minute news story on television. There’s too much competition from digital and social media that deliver news instantly and make it seem exciting. 

The remedy for this is not to make the news more thrilling, but to redefine the roles of anchors, reporters and managers in network newsrooms, and perhaps elsewhere in journalism as well. Anchors in local TV newsrooms generally do little hard news reporting.  That’s as it should be.  Let the anchors read the news and the reporters report it.

And those who decide what goes over the air, or in print, should not be contributing content to the news that’s delivered, with the exception of editorials. People of Brian Williams’s caliber still need a hand on their shoulder, ready to point out where they might be going wrong, before it happens. 

Of course, extra employees who are not directly contributing news content cost money – which comes to the news organization by way of the anchor or reporter and the exciting stories they deliver. It’s a conundrum that news outlets in the digital age have to come to terms with if they want to be perceived as a trusted purveyor of journalistic events.

And, as far as sympathy goes: so far, nobody knows the reason Brian Williams fabricated elements of certain stories. It doesn’t really matter. But truth telling has to be a standard of journalism. If it isn’t, journalism will devolve into what the Internet has become: a morass of unrelenting junk knowledge with a few occasional diamonds found in the muck. Some would argue that journalism is already there.

But once again, reporters and editors with more than a few years experience, as well as many others, know that journalism still exists, even if that existence isn’t as healthy as it once was. It is possible to frame hard news stories in a slanted way, but the basic elements of the story must consist of unadulterated facts.  If they don’t, the constitutional protections of the press, as well as journalism itself, become nothing more than a joke. 

Mary Anne Lewis spent more than 20 years working as reporter in both broadcast and print newsrooms. Her email is maryannelewis (at)