Brian Williams, Bill O'Reilly and the RealProblemTM with the alleged profession of journalism

Feb 23 2015 Published by under Alleged Profession, Journalism

Brian Williams' evolving story..

"We". "Our". "in front of us". "all four of our low-flying Chinook took fire"

Bill O'Reilly's alleged war journalism story has been covered by David Corn who details how O'Reilly uses terms like "active war zone", "combat situation" and "I've been there".

What really chaps my hide is not that Brian Williams eventually conflated* all of his reporting in his own mind into it being the helicopter he was riding in that took a hit from a RPG. It is not the fact that eventually, at one point, O'Reilly directly conflates** his presence reporting the Argentine / GB conflict from Buenos Aires with the actual combat operations in the Falklands by saying "a war zone situation, in Argentina, in the Falklands".

What I deduce from all the he said/ she said is that Williams was indeed flying around in a Chinook when one of them in the group got hit by RPG. This appears to have been miles away from the chopper Williams was in and they were all ordered down to the ground for related or unrelated safety issues. It also seems reasonable that perhaps the chopper Williams was in was hit by the odd AK-47 round.

O'Reilly, it seems, was in Buenos Aires and never in the Falklands, over a thousand miles away. He was probably in a street protest. Probably, there were armed authorities, either police or soldiers present at the street protest. It may or may not have been a threatening and frightening situation to each individual journalist but there is no evidence of authorities firing on civilians to any large extent.

With this understanding of the probable facts, go back and look at how Williams AND O'Reilly carefully parse their words. You can see how carefully they select the words they use to describe things, how tenderly they craft their story to generate a false impression without actually lying. They want you to come away from their reporting with a feeling that they were deep in the danger. In O'Reilly's case, he seems mostly to deploy this for the purpose of bolstering his war-time correspondent journalism street cred, long after the primary reporting was done.

No matter.

This speaks to how the professional journalist type views the ethics and acceptable behaviors of their profession.

It is perfectly okay, even desirable, to create an entirely false image in the minds of their audiences just so long as they do not directly tell a clear falsehood. That is what their ethics hinges upon....whether it can be proved they told a lie. Creating a lie in the ear of their audience by using words that are not, strictly speaking, false? That's perfectly okay. Williams and O'Reilly are only being criticized now because they slipped over the line and said something that was directly falsifiable on the face of their words. Not because they carefully selected superficially true statements to create a false narrative in the mind of their audiences.

This is my problem with journalism.

*aha! gotcha.

**aha! gotcha.

27 responses so far

  • Why do I think this is likely a segue into the way we use "we" in science papers, which can be just as problematic in regard to creating false images as in journalism.

  • drugmonkey says:

    How so?

  • drugmonkey says:

    If you insist on a tie in to science, think publication of a "representative image" that is in fact the "least representative image".

  • Jesse says:

    OK, I do this for a living.

    And I get upset that someone like Williams -- who had plenty of good stories to tell anyway -- conflated which copter he was in. I am bothered more by Bill O'Reilly, because he was never really in a combat zone, like, ever, except for one trip to El Salvador. Northern Ireland does not really count, and if you ask a lot of war correspondents they will likely tell you so.

    I have never been in a combat zone. I know people who have. They risk a lot to get good stuff, to tell people, to bear witness. That is why they do it. Most don't exactly roll in it. A typical pay rate might be ~$300 a story. Think about that for a second. Brian Williams types are 0.0001% of the people out there. Most of them aren't on TV, aren't on salary, and are local men and women who end up dead a lot lately.

    Now, I will say this: whether we admit it or not every foreign correspondent has to live in the shadow of Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell. So there's not a little bit of machismo that infects the tribe.

    But dammit, nobody I know who does this kind of stuff inflates stories as a matter of habit. If anything talking about certain parts of it is hard for people. (PTSD among correspondents is a huge, un-talked-about problem).

    So when folks of my tribe get called liars, specially when they are people who risked their lives, and some of whom died, I get a little testy.

    I am not saying there are no problems, far from it, but they are subtle problems. Propaganda is a lot more sophisticated than it was decades ago and even the most conscientious reporter can have a tough time escaping it. The DoD has this down to a science. A privately-owned media of any stripe is going to run into all kinds of pressures that come with being in a capitalist system.

    But please, don't assume that a lot of people are just out to con you. They aren't. Most of us try damned hard to get things right.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I see no evidence of this. I see a lot of excuse making about deadlines and telling a story to the (apparently idiotic children) audience and the Editor and headline writer etc whenever we nail journalism down on a transgression. I don't see a firm commitment to the best possible approximation of the truth, backed by the best available evidence.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And btw, "out to con you" is not quite what I am saying. I think it goes much deeper than this. It is the *profession* that is the problem. The way all y'all see how how the job should be done.

  • Anon for now says:

    I have a former adviser who does this chronically, with all sorts of stuff, including with his science. It was beyond frustrating to fight so much with him about the liberties he wanted to take and the deliberate obfuscation he wanted to employ when communicating my work.

    Fortunately he was really hands-off and I wrote all my own papers and handled all my own data/analysis, so the arguments only got bad when he wanted to put someone else's inconclusive data with no controls and totally unethical stats and bogus interpretations in my last paper. Then my eyes were opened to how low he would sink to make a point that served his agenda, and it was heartbreaking to lose respect for someone I had thought so highly of. Fortunately I'd moved to another job by then, so I didn't have to worry as much about angering him by pushing back, but I still didn't want to alienate him. We're on good terms now but that's because he doesn't realize that I no longer trust his science.

    It's especially frustating because he doesn't need to be that way. He could do it right and do it well if he just chose to (like Bryan Williams). He sometimes does it right and well, but the vast majority of the time, chooses instead to do it poorly and then spin a vast web of bullshit to dress it up to say what he wants it to. It was tough to be a trainee in that situation.

    His behavior defeats the whole purpose of being a scientist, who, like journalists, are tasked with discovering and reporting facts.

  • Namesaste_Ish says:

    Everyone wants to be a fuckken celebrity and an authority. Do you think Walter Cronkite had the ego bullshitte these jackasses have that he would demean the experiences of others and insert himself into the narrative? I'm sure Walter was a wackaloon in his own right, but that's some fuckked up shitte right there.
    I gave up on Williams and NBC a while ago with their increasingly asinine celebrity updates. I could not give a rat’s ass what a Hollywood celebrity is doing. The fact that Williams or any other news outlet thinks a Kardasian wedding is gross.
    You can't be a news anchor and report on celebrity wedding half way the way Williams has for years "so for those who are interested, we thought you we'd tell you about the wedding of blah, blah..." You are deciding what your viewers are interested in as journalists. And fuckke if consumers don't buy that store bought white bread. And this whole 'celebrities are authorities thing is tied back to the journalism circle jerk.
    Bringing attention to real life issues like Alzheimer’s or war or famine as a celeb is laudable but then GET THE FUCKKE OFF THE CAMERA and let someone who is doing actual work speak. Vain motherfuckkers.

  • Jesse says:

    Again I never said there were no problems. But it strikes me as like saying all the people in biomed research would be OK with Mengele or Tuskegee because that happened. You would tell me I know jack about it because it's much more complicated than that.

    Part of the problem is that a lot of people get their ideas about what reporters do all day from the same place they get the idea of what lawyers do all day, from the equivalents of watching Law & Order. I think you'd say there is a similar problem with how people see research.

    At their best people get into journalism because they give a good goddamn. Just like people who do biomedical research, no? Or I guess you must all be in it for the big pharma money? That last is a pretty silly statement, right? I think if I outlined the problems of biomedical research, I would list the following:

    -- having to write grant applications all the time (if you're in academia)
    -- pressure to do research that yields positive results
    -- the resulting bias against confirmatory research
    -- trying to find jobs in the field that actually pay you
    -- the ethics of informed consent and animal research
    -- the pressure to research drugs/ devices that will be profitable, which often means "first world problems" (or at least the kind of health problems that show up there)

    and many, many more besides that. I would not call all these things "excuses" and say you're all just a bunch of layabouts Doing It Wrong. If I did you'd say that was stupid and reductive. "Andrew Wakefield exists, therefore you all do your job wrong." That's what I am hearing.

    Christ, I wish the best stuff got the money and attention that Bill-O or Williams (who are not in that number) get. But it doesn't.

    And those of us that do this have to make a living. Thus far nobody has figured out how to monetize online journalism a all well. Nate Silver never made a living from the income from until the NYT bought it, and the husband and wife team that ran Homicide Watch in DC still have day jobs. Other outlets (HuffPo for instance) are basically the same ad-driven model. We've altered the delivery system but the economics aren't much different.

    This isn't the kind of thing you can do as a hobby -- at least not as well as it deserves. You have to put the hours in. Finding stuff out takes time, and a huge chunk -- at last, the stuff you want -- cannot be done on the Internet in a few minutes of googling.

    Laura Poitras? Glenn Greenwald? Are they the problem? Seth Mydans? Anthony Shadid?

    There are all kinds of interesting questions about how to do media, and how to hold those in power accountable, and how to engage people (which you have to do in SOME kind of media, social or otherwise). But that's a whole different discussion.

    I feel like I have a similar discussion whenever anyone brings up teaching. People seem to think it's easy and that teachers get the summer off, right? You and I both know that there's a lot more to it than what we see in the classroom.

    Again, mayb that isn't what you're saying, but it sounds like it from this end, and I ask you before you say "you don't understand anything you can't read" to consider why it sounds like that to me.

  • @dm
    Certainly there is selection of best data over representative (and that certainly is problematic), but I was more referring to how people write things "we performed statistical test X on our results" when in fact probably only one of the authors (and typically not the corresponding author) performed it and probably the majority of the authors couldn't even explain what was being tested.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    That has nothing to do with what I am talking about here.

  • becca says:

    Was talking with my boss about our last paper and said "fortunately, rearranging the order of experiments to create a coherent narrative is the one form of deception that is well within norms for the field." What journalists do is take the rapid impressions, emotions, facts and context and *quickly tell a story that makes people care*. The biggest difference between that and science is science has the luxuries of being able to take it slow and only having to make a few people comparatively) care. It is when you look at their work and expect "the first draft of history" instead of "storytelling of recent events" that you run into trouble.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's not about chronological order either. It's about whether the story is telling the truth or not. In both cases the profession is *supposed* to be about truth. As you point out, journalism is now about making readers "care". This is why the alleged profession has thrown truth under the bus.

  • becca says:

    Lying about the order of experiments and the rationale for each one is still lying. But we don't accept "I had a hunch" in scientific papers, so it's better to tell the small sin of a using a false explanation than the large sin of leaving your audience wondering why the heck you did something (which prevents them from paying proper attention to your data- it's not just that people like coherent narratives, it's that coherent narratives actually help us process data better and retain information). Science is also about making people *care*. Grant applications very much so. Coming to terms with this takes time.

  • drugmonkey says:

    You are very much mistaken about the differences here. As a profession we officially frown on the cherry picked unrepresentative anecdote. We can debate whether "representative image" practices undercut this claim but for the most part I am right. The practice of professional journalism pays no attention to being correct or truthful about the fundamental thrust of the story. ALL that they care about is "did these words come out of this person in this order at some point in time". Scientists do not make it their essential business to publish the outlying datapoint while trying to convince everyone to believe it is general truth.

  • Grumble says:

    The most informative comment so far is from Anon for Now, who reports the depths that his/her PI would sink to tell a pretty story. Just like Williams and O'Reilly. Believe me, this is not uncommon among scientists. There is EXACTLY the same motivation to twist the truth because the rewards are EXACTLY the same: recognition (and career success).

    What science has that journalism doesn't is that it's self-correcting. There are enough truth-seekers among us that eventually it gets around that an experiment can't be repeated. The truth comes out eventually. It's inefficient and it takes a long time, but it's the one thing that sets science completely apart from any other human enterprise.

    One could argue that journalism is similar in that one journalist's story can debunk another and eventually the truth comes out, but in practice it seems to me that it's more like current opinion influences what journalists say is the truth rather than the other way round.

  • drugmonkey says:

    What science has that journalism doesn't is that it's self-correcting

    Wrong. What science has is that using the least possibly representative yet true thing that happened as a representation for the general truth is considered wrong, aberrant and pretty much unethical conduct within the profession.

    In journalism, this is considered a-okay and even admirable ("we're telling a compelling story that the audience can understand!")

  • Grumble says:

    If you think about it, it's actually literally impossible for journalism to be any other way. What prevents scientists from presenting one example and stopping there is that it's not the scientific method: all scientists know that you need to gather repeated observations of the same phenomenon and analyze them for consistency. If journalists did that, they wouldn't be doing journalism. They'd be doing science. And with such a high ethical bar for deciding whether to report something (only report it if it's the objective, replicable truth), nothing would ever get reported, because science is expensive.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I disagree that it is either their (current) way or full on scientific standard. There is a middle ground.

    For example. When a journalist reports an unusual event potentially involving human drug intoxication the event is *always* reported before toxicological confirmation is available. They hardly ever follow up later to report if ScaryDrugY was involved. How hard would it be to wait for toxicological evidence instead of "the cop said it looks like ScaryDrugY to him"? It is not necessary for the journalist to write a treatise on all the known information on ScaryDrugY.

    Another example. When a journalist interviews you about science, frequently you can tell they have a pre-existing agenda/story and are just fishing around, trying to get you to say what they want. This is maybe particularly the case with my field of expertise, I don't know. But it is a consistent feature. It doesn't matter how hard you try to explain the reality. All they are doing is waiting around, hoping you string together words in the right sequence to support their position. And what do you know? the least possibly representative quote of a 30 min conversation is what ends up in print.

    See John Oliver's takedown of the he said / she said false equivalence crap on climate change. This "one (politically motivated, ignorant) opinion is equal to thousands of informed, unbiased opinions" business they engage in is really terrible. and unnecessary. and it is their stock in trade, not just a one-off blindness on climate change. It is deep in their very bones. And it is ruining the US.

  • Grumble says:

    You are talking about active dishonesty: "X makes a good story, therefore I am only going to report facts that support X even if there are convincing facts that do not support X, and my own belief is that X is probably not the case". I think this form of dishonesty actually is frowned on by ethical journalists.

    Journalism's ethical standard is closer to passive dishonesty than to honesty. Passive dishonesty would be: "All or most of the facts I came across supported X, therefore I believed X and reported X." Why is that dishonest? Because, according to the scientific method, you shouldn't believe hypothesis X unless you have replicable evidence from multiple sources supporting X. Reporters generally don't (or can't) go that far. But you're right that journalists should try for passive dishonesty at the very least (and really good reporting should involve multiple sources that corroborate each other), and your examples demonstrate that much journalism comes nowhere close to even the passive dishonesty standard, and is actively dishonest.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Sure I think it is active dishonesty. But clearly the profession of journalism *thinks* that this is nothing of the sort because the technical fact of an event or words spoken is, on the face of it, true.

  • drugmonkey says:

    And now we move on to the investigation of all O'Reilly's claims

  • Also Anon says:

    Sigh... I think Anon for Now is living my life. My grad advisor was a not-quite-so-bad version of that. With me everything tended to be on the up and up -- for the same reasons Anon listed. But then there were his other papers.... Did he think I couldn't see that? I knew everything that went on in his lab -- everything! he asked me recently to collaborate with him on a grant. I am torn. I don't think he's the devil incarnate, and he might continue to do good science with me, but I'm more junior than he is (and untenured). Do I really want to have my name even more closely linked to his? And can I afford to get into a pissing match with him if he tries something?

    Yeah, the basic issue is trust. I know he's not above lying to me to get what he wants.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Read any carefully crafted grant applications recently?

  • drugmonkey says:

    Not really. Preliminary Data I see is mostly good about describing methods sufficiently to evaluate.

  • Noni Mausa says:

    As a now-retired working journalist, I felt I needed to add a word or two here.

    The two "journalists" you were discussing, telling their big fish tales, are primarily visual personalities, not working reporters. They have their big exposure and salaries because of their images, not because of their facts. "C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre."

    There are such things as real working journalists. They're not showy, they don't get paid nearly what they're worth, and they have the dubious privilege of knowing that when they track down and reveal some important issue and write it up in the clearest way they can, and see it published widely, the readers most likely to be affected by their revelation will probably be reading about movie stars or the latest sports scandal, and lining the bird cage with Lehman Brothers.

    Hunt 'em up, read their stuff, write them a quick note, buy their paper. God knows nobody else is.


  • yikes says:

    Noni - totally agree. Shouldn't use the talking heads to represent the profession.

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