The Public Relations Strategist

Fallen Stars: Networks Handle News Anchors’ Deceit Poorly

April 14, 2015

Network television news organizations report and comment on crises all day — in business, in government and even in the personal lives of well-known people. But covering a crisis and responding to one are two different things.

Ironically, when a crisis hits their own organizations, they generally don’t handle it as well. Recent events at NBC News and Fox News involving Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, respectively, show that these organizations were ill-prepared to manage allegations that their own stars lied.

NBC and Fox handled these accusations differently, but neither organization handled them well. Williams — who was caught falsely stating that in 2003 he was in a helicopter hit by enemy fire in Iraq — issued a clumsy on-air apology. NBC then suspended him without pay for six months and started an internal investigation about other instances when he may have been untruthful. There were rumors of many.

This sounds like a good plan on paper, but there were several problems. To begin with, Williams’ apology was hardly a mea culpa. He blamed his deception on “misremembering” and “conflating” events. It’s hard to believe that a person would not accurately remember whether a grenade had hit his helicopter. He also didn’t make that claim at the time of the incident; he only did so years later.

Worse, he tried to hide behind the American flag, saying that he only told the story in an effort to give credit to the “brave men and women” who served in combat. But Williams didn’t say why he told the same falsehood over and over again. An apology is never adequate without a convincing explanation of why.

And while NBC’s management was right to bench Williams and start an investigation, the network would have had more credibility if it had commissioned an outside probe headed by a respected expert. An internal investigation invariably raises questions about whether some of the most damaging findings are being covered up.

O’Reilly’s case was equally questionable but handled differently by Fox News. In February, a Mother Jones article accused O’Reilly of exaggerating the kind of danger he faced while reporting the Falklands War from a thousand miles away in Argentina. But instead of apologizing for the misrepresentation, O’Reilly and his network went on the offensive, responding with indignation and personal attacks.

O’Reilly not only denied the allegations, but he also personally attacked the journalists who disputed his account. He called the writer of the Mother Jones piece, David Corn, “a liar, a smear merchant, a guttersnipe, a disgusting piece of garbage and a left-wing assassin.” Not exactly a measured response.

O’Reilly also threatened The New York Times, telling a Times reporter that there would be repercussions if he felt any of the reporter’s coverage was inappropriate: “I am coming after you with everything I have,” O’Reilly said. “You can take it as a threat.”

Credibility requires truth

A key lesson from these two examples is that even a single incident of improper behavior by a public figure or institution causes journalists and critics to look closer for more offenses. They almost invariably find them.

It’s telling that few journalists came to the defense of either man. Truth is at the heart of credibility in journalism and, while quick to support a wronged colleague, professionals in the field have little tolerance for anyone who publicly stretches the truth, even a little bit.

Credibility, once lost, is hard to get back. Only time will tell if either Williams or O’Reilly will be successful in regaining the public’s trust.

Key Lessons:
• Never lie, deceive or mislead. It will catch up with you.
• Avoid the temptation to exaggerate events.
• Don’t attack your accusers; stick with the facts.
• Be aware that, in the social media age, someone is always checking your facts and commenting on what you do and say.

Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.

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