Why Mocking Brian Williams Is Good for Democracy

Why Mocking Brian Williams Is Good for Democracy
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It’s not just fun to mock Brian Williams, it performs a truly useful service. It’s good for reporting and it’s good for democracy, too. That’s two for the price of one, like those cereal commercials that scream, “It tastes great – AND it’s great for you!” The same is true for pictures of Brian reporting live from the Alamo, Gettysburg, and the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Reporters need to know that, no matter how famous they are, they will be held to the same professional standards as everyone else. Systematic, deliberate fabrication is a hanging offense.

Holding reporters accountable helps democracy function better because we need reliable information to make choices about candidates and issues. The better the information and the more diverse the sources, the better we can perform our tasks as citizens and voters. That’s why freedom of the press and speech are essential to democracies and why our First Amendment guarantees them.

Solid, honest reporting is the only way we can get the information we need. We cannot read the US budget ourselves, much less the Affordable Care Act. We can’t see for ourselves whether Veterans are dying in Arizona because they can’t see a VA doctor. We are not on the ground to see what’s happening in Baghdad, Berlin, or Beijing. We depend on TV, newspapers, and websites to find out. We rely on honest reports from reputable outlets. When they are unreliable or, worse, dishonest, our civic world is impoverished.

To interpret these complex stories, we depend on a free marketplace of opinions from columnists, op-ed writers, and the guy tottering on the next barstool. Editors may have their own slant on which stories matter most. The left cares more about income inequality and cheating corporations; the right, more about high taxes, bad regulations, and government overreach. But whatever the stories, we expect them to be truthful. It shouldn’t matter whether MSNBC, Fox News, or the National Enquirer says the Department of Labor reports this month’s unemployment is 5.8%. That should be the number.

Some mistakes are bound to creep in. We all make them. But there is a crucial difference between unintentional mistakes and deliberate lies. Whatever the error’s source, it should be disclosed soon after it is discovered. It shouldn’t be downplayed. If the original story appeared on p. 1, then a major correction shouldn’t be buried on p. 16. If the reporter has any doubts about the facts, she should report that uncertainty at the time. “Eyewitnesses say there are two fatalities,” local reporters often explain on the 10 pm news, “but police still won’t confirm the exact number.” You hear proper caveats like that all the time. Those reporters are just doing their job.

Brian Williams was shredding his job description when he made up false, first-person accounts of events and reported them as actual news. He should not be put on “temporary leave” and quietly eased out. He should be publicly fired for cause. The problem is not just that he harmed the “NBC brand,” though he surely did. The problem is that he violated a reporter’s basic responsibility to tell the truth. His mistake wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment one, which might be forgiven after a sincere apology. He repeated a deliberately false narrative multiple times and added newly-fabricated details as he went along. Williams’ transgression hurts all reputable news organizations because it corrodes public trust in reporting.

Freedom of the press means NBC can decide for itself what to do about Williams. It has the same discretion to hire Bernie Madoff as a financial reporter or Donald Trump to discuss hairstyles. (Hey, these folks actually did hire Al Sharpton to discuss racial issues.) But we don’t have to watch. NBC knows that. That’s why I figure Mr. Williams will soon be at home, sharing stories about the hard trek West with Lewis and Clark and the march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. King.

When reporters forfeit their credibility by making up stories, sources, or quotes, we are right to mock them. When their violations are significant or repeated, they should be fired. That’s what happened to Jayson Blair at the New York Times and Stephen Glass at the New Republic. When the Washington Post discovered its reporter, Janet Cooke, had fabricated her most important story, she had to pick up her severance pay and return her Pulitzer Prize.Demanding honest reporting has nothing to do with the reporter's politics, personality, or personal life. It is about professional standards and our reasonable expectations. As viewers, readers, and democratic citizens, we must be able to distinguish between Walter Mitty and Walter Cronkite, between the Onion and the NBC Nightly News. It’s essential for our news organizations, and it matters for our democracy. 

RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.

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