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.