The Brian Williams Affair Is Now Officially An Ethics Train Wreck


…and almost all the passengers so far are journalists.

An Ethics Train Wreck is an episode involving unethical conduct that rapidly exposes ethical flaws, if not an outright lack of ethics, in a steadily widening group of participants, commentators and stake-holders and even victims. The Brian Williams Ethics Train Wreck, like most of them, could have been averted early in the  journey, if, for example, NBC had immediately acted responsibly and suspended Williams when the facts of his 13-year-long fable about being in a wounded helicopter over Iraq were exposed by Stars and Stripes. It did not however, and now NBC executives have First Class seats after apparently knowing about Williams’ lies and doing nothing. It is Williams’ colleagues and compatriots in journalism, however, who are rapidly filling up Coach. In doing so, they are demonstrating that even some of the most famous names in the field have the under-developed ethical instincts of an 11-year-old, and that when substantive ethical analysis is required, they resort to rationalizations. This is discouraging, if not surprising. For example:

Bill Moyers.

Here is liberal lion and lengendary PBS commentator Bill Moyers  on Twitter:


That’s the depth of analysis we get from Moyers: flat out Rationalization #22, Comparative Virtue, #2, The “They’re Just as Bad” Excuse, and  “Everybody does it.” So what counts most in “journalism excellence” to this multiple Peabody Award winner isn’t that a journalist tells the truth, but that he doesn’t lie about the things Moyers cares about.

Piers Morgan

The ex-CNN talk-show host, whose credentials as an ethical and trustworthy journalist are, well, non-existent, penned a sarcastic attack on Williams’s critics called “Do we want to tar and feather Brian Williams or let him be the BETTER journalist this ‘scandal’ will make him? And trust me, I’ve been there.” As you can see, his argument begins with a straw man, and a cheaply made one at that: No, we don’t want to tar and feather Brian Williams, we just don’t think liars should be paid millions to tell the nation what happened in the world when he can’t be trusted to be truthful about what happened to him. It goes on to mass a pile of juvenile rationalizations, all of the Biblical rationalizations for example, which is a terrific example of someone projecting his own highly dubious career onto every other journalist. Yes, Piers, we get that someone with your dubious past would have trouble being taken seriously “throwing stones” at another journalist’s ethics, but not everyone is you. Then Morgan repeatedly says that Williams is being pilloried because he isn’t perfect [ #19 “Nobody’s Perfect!” and #20. The “Just one mistake!” Fantasy], and this is so unfair because he’s wonderful and should be given a break [ a classic #11. The King’s Pass, The Star Syndrome, or “What Will We Do Without Him?” and #38. The Miscreant’s Mulligan or “Give him/her/them/me a break!”]

 Morgan moves on to quoting the infamous #22, used by Moyers above, saying, Brian Williams didn’t kill anyone.” Oh, is that the high standard we should hold journalists to now? They are unassailable unless they killed someone? Actually, a murderous by scrupulously objective and honest anchor man would be more trustworthy and better qualified than Williams…or Morgan, for that matter.

Then Morgan’s absolutely ethics free argument—this guy lectured us from his perch at CNN, remember—ends with this:

“Brian Williams, I’m sure, will never embellish a story again, nor I suspect put himself in the middle of it. He will, if he is allowed, be a better reporter and anchor as a result of what he is now going through.”

This makes perfect sense in Morgan Land, where ethics aren’t an element of character, but just something you have to remember to check, like not forgetting an umbrella. Lance Armstrong would be the last cyclist you’d expect to find cheating. O.J. Simpson would be the perfect husband. Everyone should be lining up for an interview to work for Bill Cosby. It’s time for John Edwards to run for President again.

Geraldo Rivera

“Why is it that the loudest voices condemning Brian Williams never served in combat, were never combat reporters? “I think that all these people with Twitter accounts who are attacking this person from the safety of their mother’s basement should shut up and let the soldiers and the GIs deal with this.”

It may be true, as Josh Marshall wrote, if you are defended by Geraldo, you’re doomed, but Geraldo could at least devise a defense that doesn’t consist of an ad hominem fallacy—where the critics do their typing does not mean what they are typing isn’t true—and another variation on the Biblical rationalizations, claiming that a critic has to have standing to object to a clear ethics violation. I now realize I need to add this to the list: let’s call it “The Stranger’s Shoes” or “Let’s see you try to be ethical!”  I guess only a national network anchorman who was imbedded in combat can object to being lied to by a national network anchorman who was imbedded in combat, right, Geraldo?

Joe Scarborough

MSNBC’s star of “Morning Joe” may be the worst of all. He used the Biblical Rationalizations to threaten any Williams critics in the media or in public life. From Newsbusters:

JOE SCARBOROUGH: You know, one of the things — one of the verses in the Bible that always — always makes me a little nervous before I start judging other people is the one that says that you will be judged and you will be given the mercy that you show others. I think we should all step back and ask whether we are so perfect that we want to be the ones to cast that first stone. Let ye who is without sin cast the first stone. I’m in no position to cast the first stone. And quite frankly, in over a decade in this news business, it is fair to say, looking straight in the camera [he looks right into the camera], I’ve seen a lot, I know a lot, and I know that there are very few people in this industry or in politics that could live by the standard of perfection. Cast the first stone? I would be careful.

Could this be worse? Essentially, Joe, who is both a politician and a member of the media, and an NBC employee, is 1) saying that virtually everyone in the news media is as big a liar and as untrustworthy as Williams, 2)  admitting that he knows who is lying, but won’t let the public they are lying to know, and 3) threatening anyone who dares to criticize Williams that he, Scarborough, might expose them in retaliation.

There will be more to come, I’m sure…for the Brian Williams Ethics Train Wreck is picking up steam and heading into infamy.



Sources:  TPM, Daily Mail, Newsbusters 1, 2

18 thoughts on “The Brian Williams Affair Is Now Officially An Ethics Train Wreck

  1. Every one of those four commentators have ethical issues up the kazoo. All I can say is that, perhaps, Joe Scarborough is the lesser of four evils. I can only assume that Fox News keeps Jerry Rivers on for the sake of “balance”. Bill Moyers should have been put an a retirement home for Muddled Mediates years ago and Piers Morgan deported… to Zimbabwe.

  2. Short note… the tweet identified as Moyers’s may not be from him personally.
    Making sense of what matters, tweets from ‘Moyers & Company’ producers and Bill Moyers. Keep track of the corrupting influence of $ on politics.

  3. Um … are you reading the Bill Moyers tweet correctly? I’m reading it as acknowledging that Williams lied at the same time pointing out that the media sucks generally. Isn’t that your theme here at least once a week?

    Now the Piers quote –that’s a rationalization without a doubt.

    • Whether or not the supposed dishonesty Moyers is referring to was really dishonesty rather than lazy reporting and incompetence, it is 100% irrelevant to knowing that one reporter lied serially over 13 years, and the resulting forfeit of trust. They reporters don’t make Williams any better. Moyers is using the amorphous “they”—if he won’t or can’t document a specific reporter whom he can prove knowingly misled the public, then it’s all smoke—and it is. Yes, the media suck. I have never, ever argued that this justifies sucky journalists or excuses them, which would be Moyers’ argument.

      I think MOYERS is a lying journalist, and I never trusted him, but he’s retired now. Bill Moyers lied for LBJ. Bill Moyers is prone to spouting Leftist cliches like “the minimum wage fights poverty,” which he’s smart enough to know is dishonest and a fraud to con poor people. Maybe he’s saying that he’s no better than Williams…I’ll buy that. But Williams is still untrustworthy, and if lying journalists have to be caught and shamed one at a time, so be it.

  4. I put Giraldo, because his rationalization is the least coherent.

    To paraphrase, “Only those who have actually been under fire ought to criticize…” (Blatantly ignoring not even the supposed victim of this hypocrisy would have standing to complain.)

        • When did “combat journalist” become a profession, outside of the military? I know we had “war correspondents” in WWII (Ernie Pyle comes immediately to mind), but “Combat Journalists”?

          • And Ernie Pyle was more of a “combat journalist” than Williams ever was. Pyle died in combat, trying to rescue a wounded soldier. Imagine any of these present day “embedded” types risking their lives to do something like that! These are people who think it ethically acceptable to likewise embed themselves with enemy units and record deadly ambushes of American troops.

  5. Sounds like acknowledgment by all involved in the media biz that the profession is inherently unethical and unprofessional, none who practice it can be trusted, and we’re fools to get so excited by one of them getting exposed.
    Every statement, all of them made by dishonest unethical “journalists,” either directly or implicitly states we should all just shut up and live quietly with the knowledge that our news media lies to us every day and it’s OK because they know best.
    The rationalization most used is # 49 “Ends…means…stuff…you know…oh go away.”

  6. My understanding is that Williams ALSO “embellished” his experiences in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina: Saw bodies floating by his hotel when the area in question never flooded (floating in the air, perhaps), plus a few other “fake but accurate” statements.

  7. I think Scarborough’s is the worst. He is possibly telling the journalists not to break their secret code (don’t let the public know the truth) or they will face retribution. This is the ‘snitches get stitches’ approach. Geraldo’s is the least problematic because anyone can see through it. Piers Morgan just makes us all glad for the Revolution. I think the screenshot of the Bill Moyer’s quote is perfect because it suggests that Moyers’ statement is an indication that NBC has a trust problem. His statement will only appeal to the “Bush stole the election from Gore”, “Bush planned 9/11”, and “anyone who criticizes Obama is a racist crowd”. That crowd is very large, but they are beyond reasoned arguments or rational thinking.

  8. An aside:

    “Lance Armstrong would be the last cyclist you’d expect to find cheating. O.J. Simpson would be the perfect husband. Everyone should be lining up for an interview to work for Bill Cosby. It’s time for John Edwards to run for President again.”

    Jack, in its context, that is some of your best sarcasm, if I may judge.

    I can’t help suspecting that what Scarborough said, which you decoded perfectly in 1-2-3 manner, was in fact his way of warning (unintentionally) that what you describe is EXACTLY how almost all of today’s election- and appointment-seeking political class – let alone almost all of today’s so-called journalists – think and operate. Something is coming, and perhaps it will be fortunate for those poor bastards that when it comes, they won’t know what hit them. They’ll be seeing themselves from within their own bubble as so pure, invulnerable and righteous, they’ll suffer such pain that even their honed power of denial will be insufficient to shoo it away. Poor bastards.

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