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Shades Of Grey: Network Television's Credibility Problem

Eileen McNamara: "Apparently, star power trumps basic journalistic standards every time." Pictured: Clockwise, from top left: Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., former NBC News anchor Brian Williams, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, and ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. (All photos AP)
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Eileen McNamara: "Apparently, star power trumps basic journalistic standards every time." Pictured: Clockwise, from top left: Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., former NBC News anchor Brian Williams, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly, and ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. (All photos AP)

Memo to NBC and PBS: There is nothing private about the ethical responsibilities of broadcasters licensed to use the public’s airwaves and reliant on the public’s trust. You need, immediately, to release the full reports of your internal investigations of Brian Williams and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Williams is no doubt embarrassed that your review of his on-air comments about his reporting exploits uncovered several fresh examples of exaggerations beyond having falsely claimed to have come under enemy fire in Iraq, the case that cost him his anchor chair on NBC Nightly News. We need to know the exact number and specific details of those lies before he takes up reporting duties at MSNBC in August. Otherwise, how do we know just how broad and deep his penchant for lying actually is? His assurance to Matt Lauer that his duplicity is a thing of the past is not enough to restore his credibility.

NBC and PBS: You need, immediately, to release the full reports of your internal investigations of Brian Williams and Henry Louis Gates Jr. 

Gates, too, is no doubt chagrined that we have learned he capitulated to demands from Ben Affleck that he omit the fact of a slave-owning ancestor from Affleck’s episode of “Finding Your Roots,” the PBS program that features the Harvard historian exploring the genealogy of Hollywood celebrities. PBS has postponed the show’s third season until it hires a fact checker and an independent genealogist, but it released only a summary of its internal investigation of the incident this week, not the report itself.

The summary leaves several questions unanswered: How did the program come to misstate the role of Affleck’s mother in the civil rights movement? She was an activist but not a Freedom Rider in 1964, as the episode claimed. How did that claim make it into the episode, underscored by dramatic pictures of civil rights activists being beaten during Freedom Summer, with Gates intoning, “Your mother was there?” Was it the decision of the host or the show’s producer? Both?

Affleck’s demand that any mention of slaveholders be stricken from the show first became known when hackers stole, and WikiLeaks distributed, internal emails from Sony last year. Among them was an exchange between Gates and Michael Lynton, a Sony executive, who advised Gates to accede to the editing request of the unnamed “megastar,” as long as there was no danger that the public would learn of it.

Did Gates alone decide to compromise the editorial integrity of PBS? Viewers, to say nothing of Harvard, might like to know. One man’s ethical lapse is not the same as a systemic failure. How lax is fact-checking at PBS?

Plummeting credibility is the cost all of journalism is paying for these warped priorities.

And just how accommodating is PBS to its “star” hosts? As tolerant as ABC, which erred in supporting George Stephanopoulos, who anchors ABC’s news-light “Good Morning America” and “This Week,” the Sunday morning interview program? That he is still, at heart, a Democratic political operative was evident not only by the undisclosed $75,000 he donated to the Clinton Foundation in the last three years, but by his combative interview in April with Peter Schweizer, the author of “Clinton Cash,” which raised serious questions about the relationship between foreign donors to the foundation and the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At a minimum, Stephanopoulos should have been barred from any coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign.

But ABC kept President Bill Clinton’s former campaign and White House aide on the air, just as Fox kept Bill O’Reilly, despite revelations that he embellished his reporting experiences during the Falklands War. Apparently, star power trumps basic journalistic standards every time.

Plummeting credibility is the cost all of journalism is paying for these warped priorities. Transparency is the very least owed to viewers of PBS and NBC. Let us read the full reports of these internal “investigations” so we can determine for ourselves just how seriously they took these breaches of the public trust.

Related:

Eileen McNamara Cognoscenti contributor
A Pulitzer Prize-winning former columnist for The Boston Globe, Eileen McNamara is the author of "Eunice, The Kennedy Who Changed the World," to be published in April 2018.

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