Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Real journalists don’t exaggerate their experiences

Two members of the journalistic profession stopped doing their work this week, one in disgrace and one with honor.

Like many in the profession that I love, Bob Simon of CBS’ “60 Minutes” was a professional, a legend in the business whose untimely death in a car crash at age 73 is a terrible loss. Simon wasn’t some anchor-desk dolt who read a teleprompter and pretended to care. During the Gulf War in 1991, he and his crew were captured by Iraqi troops and held for 40 days. They were trying to get the story, and paid the price.

During the tumult of the late 1960s, Simon was wherever he needed to be, bringing the news to the people. He was on one of the last helicopters out of Saigon in 1975, and he brought honor to himself and to his network.

Bob Simon will be missed.

On the other hand, Brian Williams has turned out to be yet another in a long line of journalistic hacks who has decided that he’s the story. His bogus tales of being exposed to combat have come to light, and I hope he will never experience a paycheck again and that he will end up somewhere where his lies and nonsense cannot hurt others.

There is nothing lower in journalism than a person who makes up stories. I add Brian Williams to the list that includes Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair as people who, if I saw them drowning, I’d throw a cinderblock. There’s a good reason that the latter two are not in journalism, and Brian Williams’ actions have caused him to lose that status.

Journalist isn’t much of a status nowadays, mainly because there are several classes of news people. At the bottom, in pay and status, are people like me who labor at news outlets for pay that hasn’t been raised in nearly a decade. We’ve been laid off a few times and most of us have had to cash out our retirements just to survive between jobs. Our health benefits cost more, and we get less, and every year we’re given good evaluations but told that, sorry, there are no raises.

We live with the knowledge that every day on the daily could be our last, and we could be tossed out like used newsprint, and find ourselves explaining what we did at the newspaper to a McDonald’s or Wal-Mart manager as we plead for a chance to work again, even if it’s for the minimum wage and no benefits.

Local society types will go to parties and snort cocaine in the bathrooms during “galas” to raise money to hire six-figure administrators and managers to run the food banks and charity health care outlets we’ll be stuck going to when we or our kids get sick, and our future will be applying for 10 jobs a week to get a paltry unemployment check, and then endless nights and weekends of grunt labor while our local newspaper is produced far away by people who’ve never been to our area.

Brian Williams existed in a rarified world of pseudo-reporting, where anchors demand millions and corporations include layoffs in the calculations for their next contract.

Williams and his ilk have no economic worries and get not only employment contracts but also pensions and severance beyond anything most of us can imagine. The people who do the “legwork” are the ones who are the working journalists, but Williams and his kind make sure that you know that the information comes from Brian Williams. He’s a “brand,” or he was a “brand.” Now he’s as tarnished as Enron, WorldCom or any of those other brands that self-destructed.

Unlike those of us who really work in journalism, Williams will do all right during his six-month leave without pay. Eventually, he’ll come to a deal with NBC, who will hand him even more millions to go away and never come back. Maybe another network will be suckered into paying him more millions to pretend to work as a journalist.

They don’t make them much lower than those who try to persuade the people that they’ve been exposed to combat when they haven’t.

Let me tell you a story about a man who voluntarily exposed himself to combat, and you can read a part of a script of one of his reports. Legendary CBS radio and TV reporter Edward R. Murrow covered Britain during the Blitz, and it was said in the PBS documentary “This Reporter” that he never went down into a shelter during a bombing raid. Why? He told a friend that he was afraid that if he started going down into the shelters, he wouldn’t be able to stop.

Here is a part of his description of an attack by an RAF Lancaster bomber. Read the rest here:

“This is London. Last night, some of the young gentlemen of the RAF took me to Berlin. The pilot was called Jock [Abercrombie]. The crew captains walked into the briefing room, looked at the maps and charts, and sat down with their big celluloid pads on their knees. The atmosphere was that of a school and a church. The weatherman gave us the weather. The pilots were reminded that Berlin is Germany’s greatest center of war production. The intelligence officer told us how many heavy and light ack-ack guns, how many searchlights we might expect to encounter. Then, Jock, the wing commander, explained the system of markings, the kind of flares that would be used by the pathfinders. He said that concentration was the secret of success in these raids; that as long as the aircraft stayed well-bunched, they would protect each other.”

Later:

“I was standing just behind Jock and could see all the seams on the wings. His quiet Scots voice beat into my ears, ‘Steady lads, we’ve been coned.’ His slender body lifted half out of the seat as he jammed the control column forward and to the left. We were going down. Jock was wearing woolen gloves with the fingers cut off. I could see his fingernails turn white as he gripped the wheel. And then I was on my knees, flat on the deck, for he had whipped the Dog back into a climbing turn. The knees should have been strong enough to support me, but they weren’t, and the stomach seemed in some danger of letting me down too. I picked myself up and looked out again. It seemed that one big searchlight, instead of being twenty thousand feet below, was mounted right on our wingtip. D-Dog was corkscrewing. As we rolled down on the other side, I began to see what was happening to Berlin.

The clouds were gone, and the sticks of incendiaries from the preceding waves made the place look like a badly laid-out city with the streetlights on. The small incendiaries were going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet. As Jock hauled the Dog up again, I was thrown to the other side of the cockpit. And there below were more incendiaries, glowing white and then turning red. The cookies, the four-thousand-pound high explosives, were bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad. And then, as we started down again, still held in the lights, I remembered that the Dog still had one of those cookies and a whole basket of incendiaries in his belly, and the lights still held us, and I was very frightened.”

The story was that Murrow kept going on those missions even though he didn’t have to. Maybe it was to prove to himself that he had real courage, maybe it was some kind of death wish or maybe it was to bring the story of others’ heroism to the people. War correspondents then and now have died covering combat, and Murrow noted near the end of his piece that two reporters on that bombing mission didn’t come back.

Many others gave their lives getting that story, and many give their lives today.

Journalism is a frustrating business, I will admit. People go in, bust their asses at night and on the weekends, get no recognition and often are blamed for the problems they report on and the way stories are “played” in the paper. I admit to my share of griping, but I will do the job as long as I am able.

Most importantly, I will do it with honor and respect, and will not lie about my past experiences to give me more credibility. I will not be Brian Williams. I lack the guts to be Edward R. Murrow, but I still believe that honesty is its own reward, and that reputation matters.

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February 12, 2015 - Posted by | Life lessons, The news business | , , , , , , ,

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