Brian Williams and the media's profit-driven ratings war

Sister Mary Ann Walsh and Brian Williams at the Catholic Common Ground Initiative's annual Philip J. Murnion Lecture at The Catholic University of America in 2008. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Brian Williams draws my sympathy. The NBC anchorman sits in the awkward position of having to be an easy-to-look-at newsreader and a model of absolute trust. He never graduated from college, though he did a stint at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. But, like other newsmakers, is supposed to opine like a grand scholar. He is expected to captivate us every night but relies on producers and researchers to do his work. He has to keep a high profile and be a man of derring-do, which led him to an accusation that he falsely claimed to have dodged terrorist fire in the Middle East. If he did get caught up in image-enhancing, he should not have done so, but there is a lot of blame to go around.

How about blaming the network that wanted him in the dangerous situation to boost ratings? How about the military seeking news coverage by putting soldiers into P.R. work and facilitating it by escorting Williams over the perilous landscape? How about the public that wants more than just the facts?

A news executive once stated that the worst day in the news business was when CBS made a profit with “60 Minutes,” the Sunday magazine show that moved the news business to show business. The need to showboat in the news biz continues to grow and does not bode well.

In some jobs one has to be "Caesar’s wife"—above reproach—and it may be Williams's misfortune to be in one of them. Some viewers make the mistake of dehumanizing persons who become media personalities and exaggerating both their faults and virtues. They are usually seen as heroes or villains. Never are they viewed as ordinary people capable of both venial and mortal sins whose virtues should not be entirely forgotten when their vices are exposed. Hopefully, a balance might still be achieved between criticism of Williams for this genuine faults and keeping in mind his genuine contributions. Also, a distinction should not be lost between exaggerating one's own experiences and failing to report accurately on matters of public concern. After all, what Williams did (or didn't do) in the war can't compare with the media's failure to raise important questions that may have affected the decision to go to war in the first place.

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Brian Williams has much to say for himself. He was gutsy to even have gone to the war-torn Middle East. He is a generous colleague who has helped whomever he could. He got burned when he touched the third rail of media politics and the network competition, however.

Today media outlets need to give more attention to resources of news coverage than to the money-making ratings wars. There are lessons here. One hopes Brian Williams as whipping boy in this saga isn’t one of them.

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church correspondent for America.

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Jack Rakosky
3 years 8 months ago
Television watching Americans are at the root of the media’s profit driven ratings war. Time studies have shown Americans, both men and women, actually do less paid and unpaid work and have more leisure now than in the past. How is this leisure being used? Increased television time not only absorbed time freed up from paid and unpaid work it reduced the number of hours spent socializing, reading and listening to stereo. Hobbies, fitness and sport time did increase, but not nearly as much as television. Religion time stayed constant. Increasingly television “news” has begun to resembled Roman circuses in which celebrities are regularly fed to the lions, and reporters place themselves in dangerous situations for the eagerly watching public. Why do people watch television when most admit they would rather do something else? People who go on vacations rarely report watching television. Read my analysis and the case for fasting from television this Lent in the 2011 post, Television, Time Use, Lent, and the Divine Office http://www.praytellblog.com/index.php/2011/03/28/television-time-use-lent-and-the-divine-office/
Tom Fields
3 years 8 months ago
As penance, let Williams do a year in combat as an Infantry Soldier.
Paul Ferris
3 years 8 months ago
Tom gets to the point of it all. AMEN !
David Muma
3 years 8 months ago
Sister, you said that, "If he (Mr. Williams) did get caught up in image-enhancing…”. Really?! "Image-Enhancing" thats what we now call a lie? You’re not saying that bearing false witness is no longer part of the Ten Commandments are you? As a former Jesuit, my Novice Master would have sent me to my room to read my Catechism again. Mr. Williams committed the cardinal sins of greed, pride and envy and did so in front of millions FOR YEARS. Mr. Williams enjoyed a nine figure salary to report the news and some of those things which were used to enhance his credibility were un-true. He never had a gun to his head compelling him to lie or commit a sin. I just don't see the network executives kidnapping Mr. Williams relatives and telling him that if he didn't go to Afghanistan they would harm them and I'm mostly certain that all that money would lure any number of people into agreeing to get on a helicopter with a team of trained special operators and a flack jacket. Heck, where do I sign!! He wasn't sacrificing himself for his craft, he was lining his pockets. As Catholics, we all know of people, saints who have made great sacrifice for the greater good. Mr. Williams made "sacrifices" for his paycheck. I will also say that there is absolutely NO sin in accepting a paycheck, unless of course you do it under false pretense. So no true compulsion exists, other than the temptation to sin. I'm also not saying that Mr. Williams is not a generous man. He may give generously of his time and treasure to worthy causes. I just can't jump into the "ends justify the means" camp on the issue. You wrote, “He has to keep a high profile and be a man of derring-do.” No he doesn’t. I’m sure if he felt strongly enough he could choose any number of careers or positions in which he could be successful without the derring-do. I’m not convinced that he doesn’t enjoy the adrenaline rush. I’d LOVE the opportunity to do some of the things he’s been able to do and places he has been lucky enough to see. Even more of a shame that he had to throw it all away. Mr. Williams wanted to be a man of influence and import, and as such was willing to lie, boast and deceive his way to achieve it. At any time he could have gone to confession, retired and found a career with less temptation. He did not. I'm sure that it would not have been an easy thing to do. Instead he got caught in the LIES and STILL obfuscated. I am not denying that the dangers of being in a world full of temptation presents a challenge to all of us, however, believe it or not, some of us really do try to live a life that is based on honor and integrity. We may trip and fall occasionally, but we are then, through God's grace, given the strength to get back up and try again if we ask for it. (I am forced to admit that some of us fall more than others!) I am not judging Mr. Williams, everyone that I have read or heard speak of him say that he is a kind gentleman and a very nice person. The angel of light is a powerful enemy and the desire to "inform the public for it's good" or convey the REAL truth to the masses and be adored for it is a powerful desire I'm sure, not to mention the money, fame and power! When you start giving people a pass and say things like "Image-Enhancing" while blaming others for the bad acts of the individual you both deny others the object lesson that might help them with their own discernment between right and wrong, but you also forgive the sin with no act of contrition. While we have no right to judge others, that is God’s prevue, we also do not have the authority to forgive sin without the sinner having a penitent and contrite heart. Quite honestly, that cheapens and demeans the power of God’s love forgiveness and Christ's sacrifice for our sins. Let’s not let our ideological causes dim our light for living, as best we are able, a faithful Christian life in the love and mercy of Our Lord. Let’s not make a false idol out of a man who would influence millions of people every night with his own opinions and thought while lying to improve his credibility to do so. Let’s pray for those with power and authority to influence many people. Let’s pray that they, and we, can have the discernment that Mr. Williams did not.
Joseph J Dunn
3 years 8 months ago
Sister Mary Ann Walsh does well to remind us to keep some perspective about Brian Williams exaggeration of his experiences. That is sage advice. Journalism does seem to require integrity beyond reproach, and Williams is paying a high price for his failings. As Sister also notes, Williams has made "genuine contributions" in some areas, and "a balance might still be achieved between criticisms of Williams for his genuine faults and keeping in mind his genuine contributions." So I'm a bit surprised at "How about blaming the network that wanted him in the dangerous places to boost ratings? How about the military seeking news coverage by putting soldiers into P.R. work and facilitating it…" It seems a very great stretch to blame the military or news corporations for Williams' own lapses. First, a military that facilitates reporters' access to the battlefield is aiding and abetting the spread of truth. This cooperation also reduces risk not only for reporters, but also for military personnel. Second, a quest for ratings, or monetary gain, need not diminish the value or integrity of reporting. Matthew Brady's Civil War photography was a commercial venture. Artistically, it was brilliant, and added immensely to the country's understanding of war. (Economically, it failed, and Brady died penniless.) Edward R. Murrow was European manager for CBS when he reported live from London during the blitz. His colleague William L. Shirer wrote his amazing "Berlin Diary: Journal of a Foreign Correspondent1934-1941" while employed by CBS in Berlin during those years. Ernie Pyle wrote his famous World War II accounts of soldier life while working for Scripps-Howard newspaper chain, then one of the nation's largest. And he was killed by machine gun fire at the front line. Shall we also in these cases blame the "network that sent him in the dangerous situation to boost ratings"? All of these were media efforts to gain readership and boost revenues, and they spread truth that was important then, and now. Unless there are facts not yet reported, trying to get the blame to spread beyond Williams' personal decision is itself an exaggeration.
Paul Ferris
3 years 8 months ago
The front runner for the Democratic nominee for president in 2016 made similar exaggerations about dodging bullets on a trip to a foreign country that turned out to be false. What's her name ???
James Bannon
3 years 8 months ago
1) My mother used to say, "Two wrongs don't make a right." Admit it, ask for forgiveness, and do your penance. 2) The reference, "the media's failure to raise important questions that may have affected the decision to go to war in the first place," is without merit. The media, intelligence agencies, and governments hid nothing, leading all the coalition governments to receive the support from the right & left to go to war. It is time to give up the fable that anything else was the case.
Paul Ferris
3 years 8 months ago
The lead UN agency and its director whose name I cannot remember said there were no WMDs in Iraq. They were closest to the time and place. Bush went to war spurred on by a neo conservative ideology aided by the notion he was avenging the attempted murder of his father.
Tom Fields
3 years 8 months ago
Sister, Sister, Sister, A lie is a lie is a lie. Williams is paid millions to "read" "news". How do you know he never lied about news? He is a leftie, after all. Why do you think the military wants PR? Most of the press is not trusted by the Military? Williams has embellished so much, so many times that he should return his pay and do penance. But, you are right about one thing---he is pretty!
Bill Mazzella
3 years 7 months ago
I guess all you right wingers are calling for the resignation of Bill (I'm watching out for you)O'Reilly who egregiously lied about his reporting in the Falklands war. But then again, Fox News, the arm of the Republican Party. lies all the time.
David Knoble
3 years 7 months ago
Regrettably, the journalism media (written and video) holds themselves to a low standard, and the myriad of lies and half-truths on the internet (which are believed by many) makes matters worse. Mr. Williams has indeed violated the trust in him, but his major sin in our culture appears to be getting caught. While he certainly shares our human foibles, he should be held to a higher standard as a leader in our country who has significant influence with people. He should be above reproach regarding the facts he reports. Small lies point to larger ones yet undiscovered. (In the helicopter story, accurately remembering an incident when under the influence of high adrenaline is most difficult. Adrenalin adversely affects short term memory.) However, once someone is caught in a lie, trust must be gradually earned again. It is hard to see how a company would pay $10 million to someone who is gradually re-earning public trust. Among our journalists, there are clearly some who are (seem?) trustworthy, and those who are clearly highly skilled in lying, with many in between. If a news topic is important to me, then I am obliged to search multiple independent news sources to look for consistency, but not so much consistency that it is obviously a single source. When the various news sources disagree, then I must choose whom to believe, or continue searching. We should be aware that we can be easily deceived on important matters by many small lies, or by constant repetition of a single lie. A good question of Sr. Walsh is whether we want to be lied to -- what do we want from our journalists? While it seems clear to me that Mr. Williams is a product of the news media culture, I agree that he was pressured to be "entertaining" by CBS, who might be reading the public's requirements. (The military "imbeds" journalists because the media was livid at the alternative during previous wars -- damned if you do, and damned if you don't.) One must be able to reflect on his culture, and on the requirements of employment, and act with integrity. Sometimes the truth has a cost -- ask Jesus!

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