Say what you will about NBC’s handling of anchorman Brian Williams’s serial untruth-telling, but at least acknowledge this: Williams was suspended for six months without pay for his behavior and then lost his job over it. Or his main job, in any case.
Williams’s demotion to MSNBC for what NBC daintily called his “inaccurate” statements is practically the death penalty as these things go. Other high-profile journalists who have admitted their ethical sins have walked away with far more limited sanctions, or no sanctions at all. No suspensions, no firings, no sit-downs with Matt Lauer to confess, as Williams did, how painful his screw-ups have been to him. Beyond some sweaty but transitory moments of public shame, there hasn’t been much in the way of discipline.
George Stephanopoulos, Bill O’Reilly, Fareed Zakaria, the gang at Rolling Stone magazine — all have faced Williams-like turns in the barrel. And all have emerged perhaps chastened but very much steady as they go.
Stephanopoulos, the ABC News anchor, admitted in May that he had contributed a total of $75,000 over three years to the Clinton Foundation, a charity run by his former boss, Bill Clinton. And he had never disclosed the contribu tions to his viewers or employer. Charity is an otherwise laudable act, but Stephanopoulos’s donations were compromising, he and ABC implicitly conceded, given that another of the foundation’s principals is Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom Stephanopoulos will cover during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Result: ABC quickly accepted Stephanopoulos’s apology and took no further action.
O’Reilly, the Fox News pundit, found himself in a Williams-like world of trouble in February when Mother Jones magazine documented discrepancies in his account of his days covering (or actually not covering) the Falklands War. Other journalists jumped in, finding multiple instances in which O’Reilly, like Williams, told tall tales about his work. Unlike Williams, who took a vow of silence in temporary exile, O’Reilly went on a jihad against reporters who reported about him. Yet even he eventually conceded that there were a few occasions when things didn’t exactly happen the way he later described them.
Result: Fox stood by its most popular attraction, and O’Reilly stayed on the air.
Rolling Stone’s account in November of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia turned out to be not just mistaken in every important way. It was determined, thanks to independent reporting and a lengthy Columbia University investigation, to be the product of willful and callous indifference to some of reporting’s most basic principles. Rolling Stone reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely, her editor, Sean Woods, the magazine’s fact checkers and managing editor Will Dana repeatedly ran through stop signs, rationalized gaping holes in their narrative and ultimately deceived readers about the flaws in their investigation.
Result: Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner took no action against any of his employees. Woods was spared in a round of layoffs the publication announced this week; Erdely is reportedly working on her next story for the magazine.
Zakaria was briefly suspended in 2012 by CNN and Time magazine after acknowledging that some parts of his many columns were plagiarized. But a second round of plagiarism claims against the TV host and Washington Post columnist last year was met with the journalistic equivalent of a shrug. Several publications — The Post, Slate, Newsweek — attached editor’s notes to Zakaria’s work in their archives, noting its suspect origins.
Result: Zakaria remains a columnist and Sunday-morning TV discussion host in good standing.
It’s possible that some journalists are “too big to fire,” in Politico columnist Jack Shafer’s memorable phrase, meaning their popularity, internal clout and wider connections make them bulletproof. But it’s also possible that what constitutes a journalistic sin has been defined to a disappearing point in an era of fragmented audiences and abundant digital competition.
In an earlier age, a wellpublicized ethical trespass brought swift justice to its perpetrators. In 1981, The Post fired Janet Cooke, the reporter who fabricated an article about an 8-year-old heroin addict, after her work was exposed as fraudulent; Cooke has not worked for a news organization since. Ditto fellow fabulists Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Jack Kelley at USA Today and Jayson Blair at the New York Times.
But contemporary disciplinary measures appear to be kinder and gentler. And sometimes, nonexistent.
Readers and viewers can judge whether journalism is better as a result.