June 26, 2019 | 75° F

Professors and students weigh in on Brian Williams controversy

The line between news and entertainment at network stations has been fading increasingly in recent years— at least in the eyes of Tim Espar, a part-time lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies.

The WRSU broadcast administrator, along with Rutgers professors and students, weighed in on the recent controversy surrounding “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams' fabricated account of riding in a military helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq war.

Williams, who reportedly makes $10 million a year, was officially suspended without pay last Tuesday by NBC officials, according to The Washington Post. He is not allowed to make appearances during that time without approval from network officials.

“Who among us has never embellished a little bit to build up our resume?” Espar said. “But when you’re in his position, people are looking at you for the absolute truth and you’re held to a higher standard.”

Increasing viewership and high ratings are important at the network level, and were clearly important to Williams as well, Espar said. But it is also important to know when to ignore those pressures.

Many people have speculated whether Williams has been slowly trying to pursue a career in entertainment over the years, said Phil Napoli, professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies.

“Apparently two years ago, Williams wanted to leave Nightly News to host The Tonight Show," he said. "He really did want to be more of an entertainer."

Williams was also a frequent celebrity guest on "Saturday Night Live" and appeared on an episode of sitcom "30 Rock," according to The New York Times. 

The Williams controversy raises journalistic issues beyond ethical concerns in the field, Napoli said.

Many journalists feel pressured to stand out and be the focal point because there are so many information sources available in the age of the Internet, he said. Williams allowed those pressures to corrupt his journalistic integrity, Napoli said.

“There is just such a crowded market for our attention, that you can’t be an old, boring guy reading the news anymore,” Napoli said.

Audiences need to know the difference between a news report and programs like The Daily Show that spoof the news, Espar said. Most people are not aware of the difference between news and entertainment, he said.

According to The Washington Post, a flight engineer on the helicopter that was hit posted a message on Facebook saying Williams was not on the same aircraft.

Social media makes it easier to catch people when they are fudging the truth, Napoli said.

“This may have never become the issue that it did without Facebook,” he said.

After Williams’ Iraqi fabrication was uncovered last week, newspaper columnists and bloggers began investigating the journalistic integrity of his report of Hurricane Katrina.

Williams claimed he contracted dysentery from accidentally ingesting floodwater, witnessed a suicide at the Superdome in New Orleans and saw a dead body floating by his hotel, according to the Washington Post.

Taylor Ebron, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student, said she thinks Williams should have been fired from the network because audiences have lost trust.

“You can’t be the anchor on a news channel and not have the trust of the people who are watching,” she said.

Espar discussed the Brian Williams incident in his classes because he said the controversy raises questions for information consumers, not just reporters.

Many students read articles posted on Facebook, but must then determine whether this news is being sensational just to garner attention and “clicks,” Napoli said.

Rutgers students have to be mindful of where they get their news from, he said. With the explosion of the Internet and existence of so many sources, anyone can tell their version of a story.

“There is no gatekeeping," Espar said. "There is no editorial process. That makes it very important for the news consumer to be careful about their sources.”

Avalon Zoppo is a Rutgers Business School first-year student majoring in pre-business. She is an Acting Associate News Editor at The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @avalonzoppo for more stories.

Avalon Zoppo

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