For ten years, Brian Williams has been the host of NBC Nightly News. He’s been the face of the news division.
A network’s credibility on the air starts with the person sitting at the anchor desk. To be credible, you must be seen as trustworthy.
Brian Williams is in trouble. He wrongly described a 2003 event during his coverage of the war in Iraq, claiming that he was in a helicopter that was forced to land after coming under fire from an RPG. He has since retracted that story and apologized. It turns out the helicopter being fired upon was not the one he was riding in, but another helicopter in the group. That false story has led NBC to look into other first-person experiences their anchor has reported, including his description of events while covering Hurricane Katrina. There is concern that there may be a pattern of behavior. If it is found that he exaggerated what he saw or experienced, or that he took stories he had heard from others and made them his own, Brian Williams likely will not return to the anchor chair.
But, even if there is no pattern of misrepresentation, Williams faces a difficult task. When your job is to report the news and you change the description of a first-person event in a way that makes you look good, it’s going to be difficult for viewers to believe it wasn’t intentional.
Doubt Can Persist
Once your integrity has been questioned, people can be quick to think the worst.
Just ask the New England Patriots.
When it was reported that footballs used by the team in the first half of their AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts were not inflated to league standards, there was no presumption of innocence for the Patriots.
Instead, we got Deflategate. The Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick were assumed to have been responsible. Few outside New England seemed willing to wait for the NFL’s investigation to determine if any wrong-doing actually occurred. Instead, media and fans responded to seeds of doubt planted by a breach of trust years earlier.
In 2007, the Patriots were disciplined by the NFL for videotaping New York Jets’ defensive signals from a sideline location during an early season game. That Spygate incident damaged the reputation of Belichick and the organization. Many viewed their actions as cheating. So, when the most recent story emerged about the possibility the Patriots had broken a league rule to try to gain a competitive edge, the public showed its distrust.
It’s unfair to make assumptions about one incident based on a prior, unconnected event. But, that frequently is what happens. It’s the reason that criminal courts often bar the prosecution from presenting to juries the prior bad acts of a defendant. Unless it can be connected to the criminal charge or can be shown to be part of a relevant pattern of behavior, that information is viewed as prejudicial. It isn’t presented to the jury.
There is no such protection in the court of public opinion.
It’s About Trust
We all make mistakes. We all can point to poor decisions we would like to take back. But, there are certain kinds of mistakes we have to do all we can to avoid, because they can have such a negative impact on our happiness.
It’s the mistakes that damage our integrity.
When an error in judgement puts our character into question, when it harms the trust others have put in us, the consequences can be harsh and long-lasting. That’s because positive relationships don’t last without trust. And, while it takes time to build that trust, it can vanish in an instant.
Once trust is lost, it’s difficult to regain.
Photo Credit: Lars Ploughmann via Flickr