Ethics Dunce: Mediate’s Matt Wilstein


It’s so discouraging. What chance has Ethics Alarms to help people learn the art of sound ethical analysis and problem-solving when the web is teeming with prolific ethics dunces like Matt Wilstein?

On Mediaite, which is supposed to specialize in news media commentary, analysis and criticism, staff writer Wilstein has delivered an archetype of atrocious ethics reasoning, packaged as a rationalization-fest to save Brian Williams’ imperiled job. It’s called Why NBC Shouldn’t Even Think About Firing Brian Williams, and the title is the most ethical thing about it. After all, it fairly and openly informs anyone tempted to read this trash that the writer is addled. It’s bad enough to argue that NBC News shouldn’t fire the man who is its public face after he proves that he cannot be trusted to convey facts accurately, but to argue that a network shouldn’t even consider ridding itself of such a public relations and professional disaster requires a naive, cynical and illogical view of business, the media (Wilstein’s field!) ethics and life.  Anyone reading such a headline is duly warned not only not to read what follows, but to avoid any website that would allow such an author to pollute its pages and its readers’ minds.

Here are Wilstein’s reasons NBC should not fire Williams, and I’m not making this up:

1. His ratings have been good. (A non-ethical consideration)

2. He’s funny. That’s right: Viewers won’t care if they can’t believe the head of your news division and anchorman, as long as he’s amusing.

3. “Besides his “Slow Jam the News” segments and edited rap songs on Jimmy Fallon’s show, Williams has also leant his talents to other NBC properties by hosting Saturday Night Live and appearing on 30 Rock.” Translation: Versatility is what you look for in a journalist, not integrity or competence at reporting.

4. NBC has had to replace other key personnel lately, like David Gregory. In other words, convenience trumps trust. Or perhaps Wilstein is making the dubious argument that you shouldn’t replace your car’s defective engine right after you re-lined the brakes. It’s hard to tell.

5. Lots of people want to fire Williams, but lots of people want to fire most news anchors. Wilstein really writes this. He is arguing that 70% of his own website’s readers wanting to fire Williams for serious professional misconduct is meaningless because so many people want to fire other anchors for other reasons.

6. Maintaining  a network’s integrity alone is not sufficient reason to fire your news anchor. Well, I guess in today’s journalistic environment, where integrity means nothing, he has a point.

7. Here’s the jaw-dropper:

“Even if Williams didn’t simply “conflate” two events in his head and was actually trying to prop himself up by exaggerating his wartime experience, he wasn’t doing it as Brian Williams the NBC Nightly News anchor, but rather as Brian Williams the man who may have legitimately thought he was going to die while flying over a war zone during the Iraq invasion. He didn’t get someone else’s story wrong, he got his own story wrong. And that matters. Notably, Williams only felt the need to publicly apologize for the time he told the false story on air during NBC Nightly News last week. The fact that he did not acknowledge Wednesday night that he had repeatedly exaggerated the story over the years has led several media critics to say that his apology did not go far enough. But the reality is that in his role as news anchor, Williams relayed the false story once and then apologized for that time and that time only.”

Got that? All those times Williams appeared on other shows as Brian Williams, NBC news anchor and told a false story don’t count! Even though he represented NBC. Even though a professional’s character and trustworthiness must always be maintained in any public appearance. John Edwards would be a perfectly good choice as a news anchor, because none of his lying occurred while serving in that role! So would Lance Armstrong, presumably. Wilstein is proposing not only that private conduct and professional conduct are unrelated, as if all of us are secretly conjoined twins and what one does is no reflection on the other (this was one of the Bill Clinton defenses), but that public conduct that relates directly to a professional’s position is also unrelated to professional conduct. Brian Williams, as Brian Williams NBC anchor, can lie about Brian Williams for as long as he wants and on as many public forums as he chooses, and no one should have less trust in his statements on the evening news as a result.

8. “He is still really good at what he does.” No, Matt, he’s not. His job is to be a trustworthy source of news. He has not maintained his audience’s trust, so he is no longer, by definition, good at what he does.

NBC not only should think about firing Brian Williams, it needs to do it.

And Mediaite needs to think about firing Matt Wilstein.

 UPDATE: Wilstein’s more conservative, competent and ethical colleague Joe Concha covers much of the same territory while displaying some ethics literacy. He understands that NBC should fire Williams, but suspects that as long as Williams holds his ratings, it won’t.

17 thoughts on “Ethics Dunce: Mediate’s Matt Wilstein

  1. Faster and more accurate analysis:
    I like Brian Williams and I approve of his agenda, so he cannot be found to be unethical or incompetent even if I have to be unethical and unprofessional to justify his behavior. And besides the American public is too stupid to understand the nuances.
    Even faster: The ends justify the means.

  2. If Wilstein is angling for a job as a Hollywood publicist, he’s found the right way. Right here, he’s used about all the spin techniques that the glib Tinseltown talkers use to smooth over the usual moral outrages committed by their clients for the last half century.

  3. To make my fellow anti-leftists heads spin, I can actually see some room for sympathy or at least understanding of Brian Williams. TO CLEAR THIS UP FRONT, it does NOT excuse the Lie.

    But I have seen it time and time again, in the military, the desire to be “the bad ass”, stories evolve from minor incidents into heroic levels of stamina and bravery. It is HUMAN nature to do this and it is almost disease-level of uncontrollability. I can easily see the tiny tiny tiny details of his story as having ALL happened to some degree. EXCEPT the bit about HIS helicopter being shot down. We’ll ignore that bit until the end.

    He said “we got hit”. I don’t know any soldier who hasn’t invoked “we” for any instance his unit got hit, whether he was immediately present or not. He said “I was in the following helicopter”. Yes, technically he was. Part of the same mission, even an hour behind, IS a following helicopter, and I’d put money that Brian Williams WAS told they were following the lead helicopters. All the other details he related, can easily be traced to some aspect of what DID occur.

    As separate details of large scale movements slowly coagulate into the tiny stories we use to recollect our memories, things condense. Eventually events become stories…and naturally.

    Unfortunately, Brian Williams doesn’t relate “stories”. That isn’t his profession. Nor would anyone be in the right to speak authoritatively about an event without being sure they’ve “recalibrated” their memories and cleaned it of lyric effect…especially a REPORTER. So he has to be mindful of what he REPORTS.

    Eventually, stories, spoken without caveats or spoken when there is such a level of exaggeration or slurring of the details as he’s been relating them, are no longer stories, but LIES.

    All of that is independent (and potentially forgivable) except for the bit about being in the actual helicopter that was shot down. At some point he let that slip in, no one called him on it, and he fell in love with the image of himself being “one of the guys who survived”. That’s what makes the situation and all the potentially forgivable aspects of his account no longer forgivable. That detail is one that can’t really be “slurred” from actual events…

    • I should clarify – this primarily effects those who feel guilty for not having achieved what they always envisioned they would do.

      The guys who felt like they didn’t contribute enough.
      The guys who didn’t contribute at all.
      The guys who happened to be there but were unable to contribute.
      The guys who DID contribute but were unsatisfied with how they contributed.

      All the same flavor of guilt…

      This doesn’t affect the people are content with how they were involved with larger events.

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