Yahoo’s Katie Couric and NBC’s Brian Williams have a few things in common. They were both considered to be respectable journalists at one point. They used to be trusted to deliver the news appropriately. They both lie.
Williams was suspended and demoted before getting a glimpse of renewed fame due to America’s short-term memory problem. More importantly, his lies were the type that didn’t necessarily distort the news. He’s egotistical and wants the world to think more highly of him than he deserves, but as far as we know he didn’t utilize his deceptions to manipulate the way people felt about anything other than himself.
What Couric did with her recent gun documentary debacle is in a completely different league than Williams’ transgression. To understand why, we have to understand the two different types of journalists on television, radio, print, and the internet. There are more than two types, but the majority of journalists who are active participants in mass media reporting fall into one of two categories:
- Reporters: At different levels they have different titles, but generally these are the journalists who simply report the news in as unbiased a way as possible. Despite the fairy tale of a perfect media world, there’s no way to completely eliminate bias when humans are in the mix, but there are plenty of good reporters out there who will state the facts and position the stories in a way that allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. Both Williams and Couric usually fall into this category.
- Commentators: These are the pundits. They’re the talking heads common on “the shows” from cable news, talk radio, and on blogs across the internet. They’re supposed to be clearly delineated; nobody turns on Mark Levin or The Morning Joe with expectations that they’re going to get an unbiased perspective on any piece of news.
When a journalist crosses over by claiming to be delivering the first category while secretly inserting the second category, they’ve wiped away the lines. They’ve become activists. Williams didn’t, as far as we know, ever really do that in a deceptive way. While there were times when he might have inserted some editorial perspective in his reports, he did so in a way that was transparent. His lies were designed to fuel his own ego, not to use propaganda to change hearts and minds.
Couric deceived. She intentionally manipulated the footage in order to present a report that was actually a commentary. The two most common evils in journalism are false sources at the top of the scale and premature reporting at the middle of the scale. Intentionally editorializing a report falls somewhere between those two.
What Williams did was foolish but relatively harmless. What Couric did was blatantly corrupt as an abuse of the power that she’s been given as well as the trust that she’s earned over the years. She had one goal: to make people less sympathetic about gun rights by manipulating them through lies. This is an unforgivable offense for a journalist. If Yahoo has any integrity, she will be fired.