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.
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.
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.