“I Believe in the Profession of Journalism”

University of Missouri

University of Missouri

A former student and Facebook friend asks me what I think about Brian Williams. “I have been wondering what thoughts you have on Brian Williams. Journalism today is not the journalism we learned in your classroom.”

Indeed, journalism has changed since Barbara, her fellow students and I were responsible for putting out the Balboa high school paper, The Parakeet, some 40 years ago. I tried to teach those students the principles I had been taught at the Unversity of Missouri School of Journalism. The current flap over NBC’s anchor and Barbara’s question led me to remember what that education was like.

For one thing, to earn the coveted B.J. degree, we were required to memorize “The Journalist’s Creed,” written over a hundred years ago by Walter Williams, the school’s founding dean.  I think it is worth reading and asking ourselves how closely those we depend on for the news live up to these ideals. I confess I could only remember the first two sentences, but Wikkipedia came to my rescue. You won’t have to read far to discover where Brian Williams went astray.

I believe in the profession of journalism.

I believe that the public journal is a public trust, that all connected with it are, to the full measure of responsibility, trustees for the public, that acceptance of lesser service than the public service is a betrayal of this trust.

I believe that clear thinking, clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.

I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.

I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.

I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman, that bribery by one’s own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleasing another’s instructions or another’s dividends.

I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a  single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of public service.

I believe that the journalism which succeeds the best-and best deserves success-fears God and honors man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride or opinion or greed of power; constructive, tolerant, but never cruel; self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of the privilege or the clamor of the mob,seeks to give every man a chance, and as far as law, an honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship, is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.

If Walter Williams were alive today, observing what goes on in the medium of television,  he might warn journalists to resist our lazy  desire  to be constantly entertained. The purpose of journalism (broadcast or print) is to inform, not to entertain. Unfortunately, journalism  is subject to a kind of Gresham’s law: entertainment drives out information. When the journalist yields to the temptation to be entertaining when reporting hard news, it’s all over. Sooner or later, entertainment will prevail and since it is not necessarily compatible with truth, truth will inevitably be sacrificed. It happens too often.

Jennifer Griffin, Fox News

Jennifer Griffin, Fox News

This is not to say that there are not good journalists out there doing a great job. Sadly we lost one of the best this week, Bob Simon of CBS News, who was killed in an auto accident here in New York.

Two practicing journalists today who are outstanding in their reporting  are Catherine Herridge, chief intelligence correspondent for Fox News and Jennifer Griffin, national security correspondent, also of Fox. I am in awe of the professionalism of these women.

Catherine Herridge, Fox News

Catherine Herridge, Fox News

So what do I think about Brian Williams? As we learn more, it becomes apparent that Brian Williams did not “misremember”—he lied.  I think he should go. Now. Not six months from now. Now. Because I still believe in the profession of journalism.

5 Comments

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5 responses to ““I Believe in the Profession of Journalism”

  1. Sarah Knapp

    Great post. Unless the networks decide to give their anchors a name other than journalist, Mr. Williams has got to go. If they decide he is an entertaining story teller who makes stuff up, then he can stay. He might fit in better as the news man on Saturday Night Live. What a mess. Maybe he can go work for Dan Rather. I have a way to solve the whole problem. A new rule. No journalist can ever utter the words “I” or “my”. There. Problem solved.

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  2. While I am sure there are fine individual journalists in the field, I find it ironic that you single out two such journalists from Fox News. The Fox News organization leads the pack in typifying what is wrong about journalism today. They repeat lie after lie, e.g. under Obama, America has accumulated more debt than all the presidents before him. That lie has been repeated so many times, that many Americans actually believe that. The fact is, national debt tripled under Reagan, far worse than debt increase under Obama.

    Fox News is primarily concerned about espousing a political point of view. “Fair and Balanced” reporting is ignored, as the priority is propagandizing a far-right wing agenda. I enjoy watching Fox News, just as I enjoy MSNBC, to hear what partisans have to say. But, we shouldn’t pretend as if either of these news organizations adheres to the noble Journalist’s Creed.

    Having conducted research and published articles on the failings of human memory, I join Elizabeth Loftus and other experts in this field is stating that it is entirely possible that Williams “misremembered” these events vs. purposely telling a lie. However, that doesn’t matter. As a responsible journalist, he should have verified the facts.

    I find Brian Williams’ most egregious sin to be his tendency to make himself, his experience, the focus of his stories. Even if his helicopter had been shot down by an RPG, the story should have been about our troops and the dangers they face, not about how he felt during the experience. Even if he personally saw a body floating in the water, the story should have been about the suffering of those in New Orleans, not his feelings about seeing the body.

    So, I agree with you that Brian Williams should be fired immediately. But, why stop there? Why do we tolerate the many so-called journalists who purposely twist the facts to push forward their political views?

    Many Americans have lost faith in the media. Millennials are literally taking matters into their own hands. They do their own “reporting” through social media, uploading videos and telling their first-hand stories.

    However, rather than solve the problem, this only makes it worse. These “self-reporters” have no journalism training. They report what they see, with no attempt to be unbiased, no awareness of (much less adherence to) the Creed. When it comes to reporting, I have far more faith in professional journalists than I do in the average Joe.

    I have a lot of faith in a number of individual journalists. However, I have no faith in the “news” organizations that hire them.

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    • Thanks Paul, for your thoughtful comment. I think the best thing we can do is to be discriminating consumers of what we see before us and what we read. And you’re surely correct in believing that we are not going to find perfection. But I still do believe in the profession of journalism. We’ve got to trust somebody to tell us what’s going on in the world. If we can fairly evaluate each and every report with a gimlet eye, that’s all we can do. I feel compelled to further defend Herridge and Griffen before I sign off here. These women have a vast reservoir of sources, cultivated, I am sure, over many years. They mine these resources methodically and report the facts. There are no loaded words, no breathless delivery, no right-wing agenda. They are sober, accomplished journalists.I trust them and don’t hold it against them that they work for Fox.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Brian Williams lies and NBC News forces him out for at least 6 months. Bill O’Reilly lies, and Fox News defends him.

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