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Why the Brian Williams 'story' matters



Executive Director


JACKSON – YEARS AGO, I made an egregious, very painful error in reporting a breaking news story for a small daily paper. (We called it “spot news” back then.)

The Internet was just a nascent plaything at the time and this story, about a tragic automobile accident, ended up being committed to print on the front page of the paper the next morning.

In the story, I had transposed the names of the individual who had been killed in the wreck and that of the driver of the other car.  To make an already remarkably sloppy error even more regrettable, the two drivers involved were both young men with, as they say, their lives ahead of them.

So the paper – in point of fact, I – had misreported the identity of the victim and the other involved party.

None the wiser to my error, I sauntered into the newsroom the next morning to begin what would ultimately become the worst day of my professional life.

I should have been fired.

Even though I started my career at my hometown paper working under the tutelage – and, yes, care and protection – of my father, I was now “out on my own.”

And, this particular day on this particular story, I was way out on a very precarious, brittle limb.

Again, this was in the days prior to internet news and social media. So there were no mobs of angry and snarky posters on Facebook or Twitter either calling for my head on a pike or devising clever hashtags or Photoshopped parodies of my error.

Further, because this was still the days of only ink on paper reporting for newspapers, there was no instant edit. No immediate correction or retraction to be had. We had to wait a full 24 hours to make good on the screw up.

It seemed liked an eternity, especially sitting at my desk wondering what was to become of my still infant career. 

I like to think the publisher of the paper saw in me some potential that was worth saving. Maybe he did.

Or maybe he saved my sorry hide simply out of convenience.

Either way, he didn’t have to grant me the pardon he did. Perhaps he knew what was to come for me: An excruciating period of justifiably angry phone calls and hate mail.

ULTIMATELY, I survived the ordeal and went on to “own the mistake.” I think it made me a better newspaper guy for it.

I still screw things up grammatically left and write. Uh, right.

And I hit send way too often without spell checking first. And my brain is always working a day or two or 10 ahead of my fingers as I type.

But the drama surrounding that factual error way back when gave me what I think is a special empathic kinship with journalists who don’t get it right.

For those of us who truly take pride in what we do and see it as a function of serving the public, there is a terrible kind of nausea one feels in the pit of his or her stomach when we do mess up the facts.

I don’t really feel that empathy for Brian Williams.

Yes, the circumstances are drastically different. And some even say the flub Williams made last week – and on a few other occasions through the years since the start of the Iraq War in 2003 – doesn’t amount to much.

I DISAGREE. Truth and integrity are the currency of journalism, no matter the medium.

We, as news consumers, are besieged by endless choices of information in the modern era. We can select to get our headlines from a mobile device in our pocket or handbag, from the printed newspaper that comes to our driveway or mailbox, or from the nightly broadcast news – an institution in the United States for over 60 years.

In fact, nearly 30 million people still watch the evening news. Fully a third of those choose to watch Brian Williams every night and trust that he will deliver a concise and truthful report.

As recently as Jan. 30, Williams failed to do that.

He has claimed his retelling of a now-infamous “war story” from Iraq was inaccurate due to the march of time and fog of war.

But to reporters who have strived their whole careers to keep the facts straight, his explanation is lacking and, frankly, hard to fathom. It too much seems like a willing mistake. An exercise in self-aggrandizement?

I certainly hope not. I like Brian Williams. I truly respected him. But a politician's trade is policy. A doctor's is medicine. An electrician's is, well, electricity.

A journalist's is truth. Once that is compromised – knowingly at that, the damage is irreparable.

We read daily about the changes and threats to the news industry that we all know and the one folks like me grew up loving.

In the end, the demise of quality journalism may not be from public apathy or disruptive technologies like the internet or social media.

It may be death by a thousand cuts from irresponsible – even if unintentional – acts that further erode the public trust.

It pains me to say it, but Williams shouldn’t be fired for this mistake.

He should resign.

Layne Bruce is executive director of the Mississippi Press Association and a career newspaper professional. His email address is

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