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.