By Virgil Scudder
One of the staples of network television news is reporting and commenting on crises—in business, in government, even in the personal lives of well-known people. A top-flight news organization sees it all and often reports it in great detail.
But, covering a crisis and responding to one are two different things. And, in my experience, news organizations generally don’t handle their own crises all that well. Neither NBC News nor Fox will get an “A” from crisis pros for their response to allegations of lying by two of their biggest stars, although NBC can qualify for a “B” or “B+.”
When Brian Williams was caught falsely stating that he was in a helicopter hit by enemy fire in Iraq, NBC’s reaction was to suspend him without pay for six months and initiate an internal investigation about other instances when he might have been untruthful. When a Mother Jones article accused Fox’s commentator Bill O’Reilly of making false claims about his reporting during the Falklands war, he and his network responded with indignation and personal attacks.
Let’s take these reactions one at a time. First, what did NBC do wrong?
To begin with, Williams’s on-air apology was unconvincing. He blamed his deception on “misremembering” and “conflating” events. It’s hard to believe that a person would not accurately remember whether his helicopter was or was not hit by a grenade. He made no such claim at the time of the incident, only years later. Worse, he hid behind the flag, saying that he told the story in an effort to give credit to the brave men and women who served in combat.
What he didn’t say was why he told the same falsehood over and over again. No apology is adequate without a convincing explanation of “why.”
NBC’s management was right to bench Williams and start an investigation. But the network would have more credibility if it had commissioned an outside probe headed by a respected expert. An internal investigation invariably raises questions about whether some of the most damaging findings are being covered up.
O’Reilly, accused of falsely saying he was in a “war zone” as a CBS correspondent in Argentina during the Falklands war, played the victim card. He not only denied exaggerating any danger he faced, he went on the attack against journalists who disputed his account.
He called the Mother Jones writer, David Corn, “a liar, a smear merchant, a guttersnipe, a disgusting piece of garbage and a left-wing assassin.” Ugly words. Then, when the highly-respected former CBS correspondent Eric Engberg, who was also on the scene at the time, said O’Reilly had lied, O’Reilly accused Engberg of skipping dangerous duty by holing up in his hotel room and called him “Room Service Eric.” Engberg responded, “He’s completely nutty.”
The Fox commentator also threatened the New York Times, telling a Times reporter that there would be repercussions if he felt any of the reporter’s coverage was inappropriate. “I am coming after you with everything I have,” O’Reilly said. “You can take it as a threat.”
A key lesson from these incidents is that even a single incidence of improper behavior by a public figure or institution causes journalists and critics to look under every rock for more offenses. Here are some of the questions raised about Brian Williams in the wake of his mea culpa:
- Was he lying in his Hurricane Katrina coverage when he said he saw a body floating past his hotel room? People on the scene said the floodwaters were too shallow for a body to float in.
- Why did he say he was at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down when he actually arrived a day later?
- Was he spinning a falsehood when he said he flew into Baghdad with SEAL Team 6? A government official said the SEALs didn’t imbed journalists in Iraq.
- Why did he give different versions of a supposedly chance meeting Pope John Paul II at Catholic University in Washington, DC, in 2004?
As for O’Reilly, Fox News analyst Howard Kurtz came up with some statements by his colleague that have been disputed by others and require a response. They include:
- In a 2001 book, O’Reilly said: “I’ve reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands.” He was never in the Falklands.
- In a Washington panel discussion, O’Reilly said: “I’ve covered wars, okay? I’ve been there: the Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. I’ve almost been killed three times.”
- And claims of heroism in a 2013 interview: “I was in a situation one time in Argentina, in the Falklands, where my photographer got run down and then hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete. And the army was chasing us. I had to make a decision. And I dragged him off…” CBS says none of its cameraman were injured in the demonstration.
It’s telling that few journalists came to the defense of either man. Truth is the heart of credibility in journalism and professionals in the field have low tolerance for anyone who publicly stretches the truth even a little bit.
Credibility, once lost, is hard to get back. Time will tell whether either Williams or O’Reilly will be successful in regaining the trust each previously enjoyed.
Here are some lessons from these events.
- Don’t lie, deceive, or mislead. It will catch up with you.
- Avoid the temptation to exaggerate events to make yourself look brave.
- Don’t attack your accusers; stick with the facts.
- Be aware that, in the social media age, someone is always checking your facts and commenting on what you do and say.