Why Bill O’Reilly Is Not Brian Williams (And What It Says About Ethics)

Please forgive a topic unrelated to sports, but the recent Mother Jones article about Bill O’Reilly’s supposed wartime exaggerations deserves comment. It is more a demonstration of the absurdity of 2015-era media than a serious ethical discussion.

A couple of weeks after Brian Williams was suspended by NBC because of misrepresentations about his Iraq War experiences, MJ presented allegations about how O’Reilly described his experiences during the 1982 Falkland Islands War.

Not only are O’Reilly’s “offenses” not as serious as Williams’, but the comparison also demonstrates the tit-for-tat bickering that marks so much of advocacy reporting today.  And it’s an unwelcome distraction from the Williams mess, which points to the media’s lack of enthusiasm to police itself aggressively.

I am no fan of O’Reilly’s.  I find his “no-spin” hype disingenuous, his self-promotion annoying and his content anything but journalism.  One reason I minimize his offense compared to Williams is because I take Williams’ role more seriously than O’Reilly’s.  Bill is an entertainer playing to a core audience.

Describing what he did more than 30 years ago as a “war zone” reporter for CBS News, complete with an anecdote about rescuing a photographer from an advancing army, is certainly an embarrassment, but it should not detract from the seriousness of Williams’ actions — or of NBC’s foot-dragging in addressing it.

It is telling that while Williams’ reporting in New Orleans on Katrina has been questioned, the same has not happened to O’Reilly yet.  He has also referenced reporting assignments in the Middle East and Northern Ireland, but neither Mother Jones nor any other outlet has disputed that.

Enough has been written about Williams’ journalistic sins.  It’s not like all he did was to describe being in Kuwait as “war zone” reporting (to try to draw a parallel with O’Reilly).  Instead, he related an RPG attack on his helicopter in Iraq — some 21 years more recent the Falkland Islands War — that happened to another helicopter in his group.

What’s done is done, and Williams has admitted his dishonesty.  What concerns me more is the broad defense of Williams, not only within the NBC offices at Rockefeller Center, but among journalism professionals.

Williams benefited from a lot of goodwill early in the controversy, with many respected colleagues minimizing his offense.

I was not one of them.  As I noted earlier, I consider Williams’ approach preferable to O’Reilly’s.  But we don’t judge journalists (or pseudo-journalist/entertainers).  We judge their actions.

And once a journalist crosses the line as clearly as Williams admitted to doing, journalists must protect the standards of our profession.  Instead, so many journalists hemmed, hawed, shrugged, harumphed … anything to avoid confronting a serious ethical breach from a high-profile personality.

The response should have been stronger, even if regrettably so.  Though we judge the action and not the journalist, we penalize the journalist for the action.  To minimize the penalty for a well-liked personality — or strengthen it in the case of O’Reilly, who is a lot more irritating — minimizes the action.

The article by Mother Jones, stirred into the pot, only makes it worse.  It’s the intramural back and forth that punishes Fox News for glorying in NBC’s plight by pointing out a supposed mess for Fox.  It implies a covenant of mediocrity: one network stinks as bad as another, so let’s accept it and not single anyone out, lest we be outed ourselves.

I exhort Auburn journalism students to aspire to a higher level when confronted with breaches of ethics.  Episodes like the Brian Williams debacle are regrettable.  Excuses and distractions are too.



This Blog Thing Here

OK, this looks better.  I’ve been planning to move my blog from Tumblr to WordPress for a while, and I have set up this blog, thanks to help from Rachel Pipan.  I’m easily impressed — most Auburn students know WordPress more than I do — but Rachel is wicked smart and talented.

(I’m also in the process of migrating my old stuff here. It’s a tedious process, but check back from time to time to check out the goods.)

To christen this new venture, I thought I would set down some thoughts on why I blog, why I tweet and from time to time, why I embarrass myself on sports talk radio.  I bring more to this process than a craving for attention — though I admit that, like every journalist, I love it when my stuff is read. Commented on. RT’ed. Linked to. You get the idea.

But how does it relate to my work as an associate professor of journalism for Auburn?  As we learn to always say in class with a smile, good question!  And this time I have an answer for it.

It is crucial that those of us involved in profession-related academic programs (education, business, pharmacy, yadda yadda yadda) engage with our profession.  The ivory tower is real to some folks both on and off campus, but we’re not compelled to keep office hours there.

I have found that Twitter in particular gives me an opportunity to engage — not only with professionals who are kind to respond, but also with sports media audience members, including my students.  Sports media as a research stream draws a little more interest than 18th Century Latvian poets.  I’d like to think that I have something to offer both in terms of insight and observation, from both my professional (15 years) and academic (21 years) experiences.

So what does this contribute to my academic career?  Directly, I would estimate somewhere around, ah, maybe, nothing.  None of it goes on my annual report or my CV. Which is fine.  Indirectly, of course, it adds a lot — to the classroom, to my research and to me personally.  Trying to word that last component sounded too California, so you’ll have to get it from that.

That said, let me quickly add that I have nothing wrong with the official stuff — the research that got me tenure and promotion (i.e., job security) in the first place.  At the risk of being celebrated as Captain Cool or Mr. Fun, I will confess that I enjoy my research into the history of sports media.

My blogging has slowed because I am currently gutting out a biography on Ford Frick, baseball commissioner from 1951-1965.  But when it comes to reading the old Sporting News editions online, I’m a geek and I can deal with it.

But I don’t want it to stop there.  When it does, academics are just talking and writing to each other at conferences and in journals, and rewarding themselves for it.  I enjoy the conferences and the journals, but there has to be more to the life of the mind.

If this is your first time at one of my blogs, you might notice that much of my stuff is based on academic research — my own and others.  The Bill Tilden piece for OutSports started as a journal article.  The ViceSports essay on racism in sports broadcasting summarizes the readings for a class lecture on the topic.  The BINGing and CORFing piece applied others’ research on social identity theory to the Auburn-Alabama rivalry in a football game weekend lecture — the Immaculate Reception of 2013, to be precise.

As I relate particularly the work of colleagues, it’s well-received, because it’s like an untapped treasure; many sports fans are not aware of the great media research that has been going on.

I always argue that the most important product of a college/university is not students — it’s knowledge.  We exist as a place where new ideas are tested that will benefit society.  In the social sciences, our mission is to help society understand the processes that affect everyone.

So to me, when I share it through my blogs, it’s an easy sell. There is some good product out there.

Yes, we then impart this knowledge to students, and I will also admit to loving the classroom too.  Teaching is like journalism to me — lecture prep is info gathering, lecturing is article presentation, and grading is editing.  I mean, what’s not to love?

My personal perspective in the classroom and on social media is old school in origin — having transitioned from typewriter to VDT to command-based PC to Mac to networks to Internet to social media.  I struggle to keep up with the tools, as demonstrated by the foray into Tumblr that Rachel had to rescue me from, but the principles still work.

So basically, I love everything about being a college professor (except the endless meetings, of course), and I love reading and writing, particularly as both relate to sports and the pros who write what I read.

I hope that shows through here, and that you enjoy what you read here. If it doesn’t, and you don’t, I can’t blame Rachel.