There is already widespread speculation that Brian Williams will not return to the anchor position at NBC Nightly News. In follow-up to my previous post, it has been announced that he will serve a six-month suspension, without pay. I agree with the idea that he shouldn’t return to NBC News at all. All news media are under a microscope, as they should be, because of a series of credibility issues caused by some of the top news organizations in the United States. These issues include controversies at CBS, The New York Times, USA Today, and numerous others. Unfortunately, I lecture about these issues each semester at SMU in my Ethics of Convergent Media class. NBC should turn to an established journalist who has done hard news reporting. She or he should have a record of breaking major news stories of importance. She or he should have a record of being able to work sources, and report news that matters to the population in the United States. This is just a personal bias, but I would hope it would be someone with experience in international reporting. Integrity of this person should be beyond question. NBC, take it from me. Do not promote anyone who has had anything to do with the Today program in the morning, which has become a total joke. Get a real journalist. Help the NBC network, but, more importantly, help the credibility of news media in the United States.
Brian Williams, NBC News anchor, has now apologized for his claim that he was in a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire while covering the Iraq war in 2003. He announced over the weekend that Lester Holt will be anchoring the NBC Nightly News for the next several days. It has been reported that an internal investigation is under way at NBC. The New York Times assembled a report and video showing how the tale grew over the years. The video concludes with Williams’ on-air apology given Wednesday, February 4. Williams now acknowledges that the helicopter he was in was not hit and that the helicopter in front of the one in which he was flying was hit. Williams now says his helicopter landed safely sometime after the stricken helicopter landed. Questions are now being raised over Williams’ reporting during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While reporting from the French Quarter in New Orleans, he reported seeing a body floating past. The French Quarter apparently wasn’t flooded. All this is not much ado about nothing. It strikes at the integrity and credibility of a high-profile journalist and one of the top news organizations in the world. At the very least, strong disciplinary action will be taken. It remains to be seen whether this will end Williams’ career. But even if that happens, how does NBC go about restoring credibility with its audience? And in the broader sense of news media, sadly, there is a multiplier effect that cases like this have on all journalism. This is noted in a nice analysis done by Brad Hecht of the Reputation Institute. It gets to the heart of basic journalism, and is a very good lesson for students. Exaggerations, lies and fabrications catch up with you. Don’t do it.
Lots of buzz in mainstream media and also social media about a second book by Pulitzer Prize-winner Harper Lee. The book, Go Set a Watchman, was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird. The book is about Scout Finch as an adult living in Alabama. The New York Times reported the story today as did other news media. The Times story notes that To Kill a Mockingbird continues to sell more than a million copies a year. Lee said she thought the book had been lost, but it was recently discovered. She said that upon reading Go Set a Watchman years ago, her publisher recommended another book focused on Scout as a child, which is how she produced To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was first published in 1960, and the film starring Gregory Peck was released in 1962. Both are iconic. Lee is 88, and it was widely thought that she had not written anything except To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman will be published in mid-July and is due for a printing of two million copies.
I have been moved by the stories in the news this week about the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Among the many stories I’ve read, I’m partial to this excellently crafted piece by Jonathan Freedland published in The Guardian. In 2007, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau as a part of the Embrey Human Rights Program at SMU. It’s been my honor to serve as a member of the board of the program since it started at SMU. My wife and daughter, 16 at the time, accompanied me. My main memory of the death camp is that the train tracks and the building over them look exactly as had been portrayed in film. I’m not sure why, but it somewhat surprised me. It is a haunting scene, and except for an attempt to blow up the crematoria, the exteriors of the buildings are the same as when Ukrainian troops liberated the camp. It is simply ghastly to believe that such a brutally efficient operation could be built. I’ve seen various estimates on this, but it seems that the Nazis could murder up to 20,000 people daily. The interiors of the buildings have been altered to create a museum documenting the horror. My main memory inside the buildings is of a large case holding thousands of pairs of eyeglasses removed from those who were executed. My second memory is of the photographs of the victims that line the walls. The Nazis were proud of what they were doing and wanted to document for the world what was happening. Freedland’s piece in The Guardian mentions that Allied planes flew over the camp. In fact, strategic targets near the camp were bombed. Jewish groups made appeals as early as 1944 that Auschwitz be bombed to shut down the camp. The U.S. War Department refused, and it’s an interesting and difficult question even to this day. Among the dozen or so sites in Poland we visited in 2007, none made the lasting impression that Auschwitz did. I encourage every student I have to take the annual trip to Poland sponsored by the Embrey Human Rights Program. It is a somber and sometimes difficult trip, but one that remains important.
I just can’t resist piling on, simply because I view the New England Patriots with such complete disgust. I don’t like Bill Belichick, as much as I respect his ability to coach up athletes and make them better. I don’t like Tom Brady, despite the fact that he will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer and deserves to be. I admit it. I’m a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. And also the Houston Texans, having lived in Houston for 29 years. There is no question that 11 of the 12 footballs provided by the Patriots were under-inflated at halftime of last Sunday’s AFC Championship game. What advantage does an under-inflated ball give? For a quarterback in cold and wet weather it helps provide a firmer grip. And likely makes the ball easier to catch for receivers. Dan Shaughnessy, the excellent sports columnist for The Boston Globe, has correctly analyzed the situation in today’s column. Coupled with SpyGate, DeflateGate now means that one of the most successful teams in the history of the NFL will have a tarnished image. SpyGate, you may recall, was the signal-stealing caper several years ago that cost Belichick a $500,000 fine and the Patriots a first-round draft choice. In today’s news conference, Belichick said he had absolutely no knowledge of the incident, but he did make a reference to Brady that conspiracy buffs will interpret as the quarterback perhaps having some relevant knowledge. Shaughnessy is correct in that it likely doesn’t matter what the NFL investigation turns up. The stench on this franchise is there.
The news from Argentina has been mostly bad in the last 10 years or so. The administrations of two Kirchners (Néstor and, since 2007, Christina) have sent the country in a decidedly leftist direction. The economy has continued to decline. This week, the death of prosecutor Alberto Nisman, only hours before he was to testify before Congress, has created even more doubts about the credibility of the government. Nisman had accused Christina Kirchner of covering up details of the 1994 attack on a Jewish Community Center that left 85 dead. The accusation was that Kirchner had negotiated a deal with Iran that involved ongoing commercial benefits to Argentina, including oil. Two years before the 1994 attack, the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires had been bombed, killing 29. The government’s version is that Nisman’s death was a suicide, but many aren’t buying it, based on the thousands who have taken to the streets to protest. The newspaper Clarín is today reporting details that contradict the government version. Both Kirchners, by the way, have warred with the press, and threats to a free and vibrant press have increased dramatically in recent years. No country in Latin America has had a more tortured history, beginning with the rise to power of Juan Perón in the 1940s. Specific to Argentina, also, is a history of anti-Semitism. The country seemed to be making progress after the end of the Dirty War and the short-lived Falklands War with England in the early 1980s. What is happening now is quite sad. I have very dear friends in Argentina, and I’ve been there perhaps a dozen times over the year. Buenos Aires itself is a lovely city, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. The Argentines deserve better.
I was cleaning out a drawer last week and came across this ticket to the Rolling Stones concert at American Airlines Center on Nov. 29, 2005. It’s significant because I took my daughter to the concert. She was 15. She had just a few weeks before seen Green Day, which was her first really big concert. She had been pooh-poohing the Stones to some extent, thinking that she had seen rock ‘n’ roll defined forever with the Green Day show. About a third of the way through the Stones’ concert, she looked at me and said, “This is a really big deal, isn’t it?” I had her, and she knew it. And to this day she loves the Rolling Stones and much of the music of the era. I saw the Rolling Stones again two nights later in Houston at the Toyota Center.
Well, if you don’t know then you shouldn’t ask. I’ve actually been asked this several times this week in light of the championship football game played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. I’m a proud Buckeye. I went to graduate school at The Ohio State University 1975-1976. I earned a master’s degree in journalism that has helped me greatly in my career. I noted on my Twitter feed right after the game that I was pleased that a team that had a gimmicky offense and goofy uniforms (that would be Oregon) went down to defeat. And a team with great athleticism, speed and discipline (and traditional uniforms and a great marching band) won. Congratulations, Buckeyes. Well done.
The White House very seldom admits mistakes. As yesterday began I thought all the criticism about the failure to have someone of high rank in the U.S. government attend the rally in Paris might have been a bit overblown. But the acknowledgement from the White House of the mistake confirms that it’s not just a matter of the president’s usual critics being on his case. The massive rally was to symbolize France’s resolve to support freedom of expression and to resist terrorism. The rally was in response to Islamic terrorists last week attacking the offices of Charlie Hebno, a French satirical magazine, and murdering the editor and several staff members. The rally was led by French President Francois Hollande and included a number of other world heads of state. What’s especially puzzling about the White House inaction is that Attorney General Eric Holder was in Paris. Perhaps he was too busy cooking up subpoenas against journalists in his own country or thinking of some other insult against the First Amendment, activities for which his Justice Department is now well known.
Today the world is repulsed by the murderous attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The magazine had published satirical writings and drawings about Islam. There has been tremendous worldwide support for free speech, including many in France saying they will not be intimidated by the violence. I thought this morning in reading many of the accounts the different approach that so many Western religions have taken toward comedy and even insults about belief. Especially, I was thinking of The Book of Mormon, a musical that is funny, totally irreverent and even sacrilegious in places. My wife and I saw it in London last summer. She was in fact a bit offended at some of the lyrics. Yet, as many have affirmed today, satire is an important part of our modern free-speech dialogue. When the musical came out, the Mormon Church didn’t plan protests or boycotts. It made a statement reaffirming the faith in the actual Book of Mormon. The church also took out ads in the programs of theaters where the musical was staged. To me, it’s not accidental that the several friends I have who are Mormon are some of the most decent, loving and rational people I know. And also smart. Satire has a long and mostly distinguished history. There are a couple of very nice essays that I have seen today. The first, by Simon Schama, was published in the Financial Times and discussed some of the history of satire in Europe, including the groundbreaking artist James Gillray. The second is this piece by Jonathan Tobin in Commentary that does specifically mention the Mormon response to The Book of Mormon. In any case, it is clear that jihadists are targeting free speech as some type of perceived affront to whatever their religion really is. And it’s also clear to me that no rational teaching of Islam can countenance such an attack as we have seen on the magazine in Paris. The remaining staff members of the magazine have announced that next week’s edition will be published on schedule. Rather than the usual press run of 60,000, one million copies will be printed. Vivre longtemps une presse libre. Free speech is not just the freedom but the right to criticize government, religion and institutions. It will survive.