TIME Media

It Wasn’t All Brian Williams’ Fault

By turning journalists and anchors into celebrities, we’re part of the problem.

Here’s a dirty little secret about the news: people love stories about others’ misfortunes. Our fellow citizens in California love to watch the snowstorms in the east; those of us in the east don’t mind seeing the brushfires and mudslides of our western brethren. And all of us join together to watch the devastation of a tsunami half way around the globe. Whatever problems we might have, at least we don’t have those problems.

So, it’s hardly surprising that the recent travails of Brian Williams and NBC News are so popular in the press. The media always love stories about the media, and if the media get to cover the failings of their competitors, so much the better. After all, it’s happening to them (in this case, Williams and NBC News) and not to us. What could be better?

The problem is that what we’re all watching now is about us as much as it’s about them. It’s about “us” in TV news – for that matter all the news media. And even more troubling, it’s about “us” in the audience as we’re drawn so powerfully to the growing celebrity status of journalists.

Let’s start with a surprising revelation: People sometimes make mistakes—foolish, embarrassing mistakes that, looking back, seem unimaginable. Reporters do it; politicians do it; even our best friends do it. If we’re honest, each and every one of us has embarrassed ourselves in ways that now seem preposterous. Or if we haven’t, we will.

But this isn’t as simple as one famous, successful, charming news anchor setting off on his own to embellish his war record. Whatever Brian Williams did or didn’t do, wherever he ends up, we’ve been with him each and every step of the way.

Think back to what was happening when Williams made his visit to Iraq. In and of itself, sending a well-known reporter to cover a war is not unusual. Experienced correspondents and anchors are good at their jobs, and often their prominence can get them interviews and access others couldn’t get. At ABC News, where I was president, we sent Ted Koppel as part of our team to cover the war in early 2003.

But Williams was more than a well-known reporter or anchor. He was the heir apparent to Tom Brokaw as anchor of Nightly News, only two months away from the official announcement he would be taking over. NBC News was grooming him for the position, but was also mounting an impressive marketing campaign to establish him as the worthy successor. What better way to do that than to send him into the midst of the Iraq war to march triumphantly into Baghdad with “our” U.S. troops. I know. I was watching it all and admiring how good they were at positioning Williams for the inevitable promotion.

It wasn’t only NBC News that was increasingly flexing its marketing muscle at the time. Roger Ailes had taught us all a new level of branding with Fox News, passing CNN and leaving MSNBC far behind by the time of 9/11. All of us were losing viewers to the cable news channels, and there was enormous pressure to stem the erosion.

Things have only gotten worse since the spring of 2003. The competition is fiercer, the financial pressures are greater, and as digital media has come into its own—and particularly social media and streaming video on mobile—there’s more marketing and publicity and branding in news than ever before. Inevitably, the temptation is to make that marketing and publicity and branding be about the people covering the news, rather than about the news itself.

In that environment, there wasn’t much incentive for people around Williams to be reining him in. Just as there’s no real incentive to rein in other anchors or reporters making themselves the center of the stories they cover.

It doesn’t have to be this way. I worked for years with Peter Jennings, who established himself over an entire career as a reporter covering the Middle East and conflicts around the globe. As someone with experience, he never felt the need to make himself the center of the story—to establish his courage or willingness to take risks. He always urged all of us who worked with him to remember that our job was to cover the story, not to become the story.

We took Peter’s attitude to heart. Six months after Peter died, our own Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, were seriously injured by an IED on an Iraq road outside Taji, Iraq, in January of 2006. No one needed to embellish what had happened. Both had shrapnel injuries to their brains. Bob remained in a coma for 36 days. Miraculously, he came out of it—miraculous because none of us, beginning with his devoted wife, Lee, knew whether he would ever wake. Or, if he did, what kind of life he would have.

But through strength of character and the support of his family and friends and great good luck, Bob came back. When he did, we agreed that we should do a documentary on what he’d experienced. But from the first meeting I had with Bob about that documentary, we both agreed that it shouldn’t—couldn’t—be about just Bob. Bob told his story in that documentary, but his story was a minor portion of the hour we produced; most of the hour was given to the men and women who’d suffered injuries similar to Bob’s (and worse) and to the families who sustained them. This wasn’t about Bob the war hero. This was about Bob the witness. Bob the reporter.

No one knows, no one can know, where the Brian Williams story will lead. NBC News is conducting an investigation into the facts. The story may turn out to be even worse than what we know now; the story may turn out to be not as bad as it looks. But before we jump too quickly on the gloating bandwagon, let’s consider what role we all may have played in the drama we’re all watching unfold.

If we really want to encourage reform, let’s seek out those who cover the news and don’t put themselves at the center of it. Let’s reward them with our time and attention. I know Brian Williams. He is a good newsman and a good man. Like so many of our anchors and reporters today, he simply needs to know that we value him for his reporting, not for his “making” the news.

Or, of course, we can all just enjoy watching others’ misfortunes.

Read next: Operation Anchor Shield: Why NBC News and Brian Williams Need to Open Up, Now

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TIME

Why I Can No Longer Root for Michigan Football

Minnesota v Michigan
Leon Halip—Getty Images Quarterback Shane Morris (#7) of the Michigan Wolverines is helped off the field by Ben Braden (#71) during the fourth quarter of the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Sept. 27, 2014, at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Mich.

David Westin, principal in Witherbee Holdings, LLC, is the former president of ABC News and author of Exit Interview.

When quarterback Shane Morris was kept in the game after a brutal shot to the head, the university forgot its priority: keep kids safe

I never thought I’d feel this way. I never thought I’d feel ashamed of my Michigan Wolverines.

I’m a Michigander through and through, born in Flint and transplanted in my teens to Ann Arbor. My senior year in high school was Bo Schembechler’s first as coach of the Michigan football team, the year of that spectacularly unlikely win over Ohio State and Woody Hayes. I spent seven years at the University of Michigan as an undergraduate and a law student, with student season tickets every year. Working my way from deep in the end zone around the corner toward the 20-yard line. Each year brought heartbreak as we lost the last game of the season — either to Ohio State or to some Pac-8 team in the Rose Bowl.

Through it all, I’ve always been proud to identify myself as a Wolverine. Sure, we liked winning more than we liked losing. And sure, we complained bitterly when we lost the big ones. But we loyally suffered through it all — even the Rich Rodriguez era, which seemed so completely out of step with the long, storied traditions of the great U of M. We wore our navy blue sweaters with the maize block M. We branded our cars with bumper stickers. We flew the Michigan flag in our yards every year on the day of the Ohio State game. We thrust our fists in the air when we sang “Hail to the Victors.” Win or lose, we stood firm with our school. We were proud when we said “Go Blue.”

Last Saturday the seemingly impossible happened. Michigan lost to Minnesota, giving us the third loss in September — something we hadn’t seen in 135 years of Michigan football. But that wasn’t the impossible part. What could not have happened, but did, was the decision to leave our quarterback, Shane Morris, in the game after a brutal shot to the head from a defender that left him clearly woozy and shaken. Anyone with any sense could see that he most likely had a concussion (which medical tests later confirmed). But the Michigan coaching staff left him in to play another down — and then later put him back in the game for another play, after which he was taken from the stadium in a golf cart.

Head coach Brady Hoke first said it was his decision to leave Morris in the game. Then he changed his story to say it was his medical staff on the sidelines. He insisted that Morris hadn’t really been injured. Then he said he didn’t even realize that his quarterback had been hit. The athletic director, Dave Brandon, issued a statement early Tuesday that said there had been a “serious lack of communication” on the sidelines and admitted that Morris had a “probable concussion.” Now, some are saying the real problem was that Hoke doesn’t wear headphones on the sideline, so no one could tell him that his quarterback was in no shape to keep playing.

What we have here goes way beyond a failure to communicate. Even if Hoke wasn’t watching, even if he had no one to tell him something was horribly wrong, even if he hadn’t been in the stadium, the Michigan football program I thought I knew and had rooted for loyally for all these years would have known on its own what to do. This is, after all, a university. This is where parents send their children for learning, for growing and, yes, for athletics. One would have thought that everyone would know from Day One that there’s one priority that ranks above all others: keeping the kids safe. Not winning a game; not filling the seats; not getting the most out of television-rights contracts. First and foremost, don’t hurt the students.

If Hoke and Brandon and, for that matter, university president Mark Schlissel haven’t ingrained this simple principle in the minds of every single person who works at the school — much less on the football coaching staff — then we’ve got something much worse than a breakdown in communications. We’ve got a breakdown in values.

I know college football leaves much to be cynical about. I know there are immensely successful programs that put football success above all else — above educating the students, above keeping them safe, above making sure they behave themselves in their off time. But we Michigan fans thought our university was different. That belief has made me a loyal alumnus and fan of the University of Michigan. For the first time in my life, I’m having to question whether Michigan truly is different from all those other large state universities that let their hugely profitable football programs do pretty much what they want.

I haven’t been asked for my advice on what the university should do now, and I don’t know what went on behind the scenes. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: the leaders of the University of Michigan have to take decisive, unambiguous action to reassure all of us that they understand what matters most to them, to their students, to their students’ parents and to all of their fans. The reputation, the brand, the pride we Wolverines used to have — all of it hangs in the balance.

Westin, principal in Witherbee Holdings LLC, is the former president of ABC News and author of Exit Interview. The views expressed are solely his own.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME U.S.

Justice and Capital Punishment In the U.S.: A Downright Embarrassment

If we can’t get it right the act of sentencing and consciously putting to death one of our own, it's time to reconsider.

When an Oklahoma judge and jury sentenced Clayton Lockett to be put to death, they didn’t have in mind strapping him to a gurney, injecting him in the groin with a drug that appeared to only render him unconscious, having him writhe for several minutes, trying to get him off the gurney, and then having him die of a heart attack after the executioner tried to call the whole thing off.

Whatever we think of capital punishment in the abstract, something went horribly wrong when it came to Lockett’s execution. Everyone— advocates for and opponents of capital punishment, the Governor of Oklahoma and its Head of Corrections–is calling for a thorough investigation. Did the drugs work? Didn’t they? Why? Was there a better way to do this?

All important questions, but they don’t get to the broader issue. I don’t mean whether capital punishment is morally right or wrong or even whether it is “cruel and unusual punishment” as the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment bans.

No, the broader issue is why we as a country simply can’t get it right when it comes to the most serious and important action any society can ever take: consciously putting to death one of its own. And if, after years of trying, we can’t get it right, what does that tell us about whether we really believe in the idea of executing people in the first place?

Botching what was supposed to be a lethal injection for Lockett is the most recent, particularly powerful example of what turns out to be a larger pattern. This is far from the only case where these things went horribly wrong. One execution took 43 minutes; another required 86 minutes. And in one case, they had to try injections no less than 18 times before the drugs finally took.

This may have something to do with the difficulty of getting good doctors to participate in the process; the American Medical Association opposes any of its members participating in executions, period. It may also have something to do with drug companies’ increasing reluctance to make available the drugs required. For a whole host of reasons, we’ve proven to ourselves more than once that we just can’t be sure about getting the mechanics right when it comes to the act of taking someone’s life.

If anything, we’re doing an even worse job of deciding who among us deserves to die in the first place. A study done a few years ago by James Liebman at Columbia University found that, over a 22-year period, almost 70% of all death sentences were overturned. And more than 80% of those overturned sentences were never ultimately re-imposed. Someone, the courts, the prosecutors or some other state official, decided that the person shouldn’t be executed after all.

The reason for this shocking error rate isn’t surprising. The police work and the lawyering in these, the most important cases in the justice system, are overall pretty shoddy. Most of the time death sentences are vacated it’s either because the legal assistance was “ineffective” (which means it’s pretty bad–courts generally don’t like to second-guess the lawyering) or there was police misconduct. Let’s be honest, nobody on death row gets the sort of legal representation that is routinely provided for millions of dollars in the average commercial dispute between two large companies.

Probably sensing that we’re doing such a shoddy job in convicting and sentencing people to death, we try to make up for it by stretching out the appeals process to the point of absurdity. We review death penalty cases again and again through various state and federal appeals–all the way up to the Supreme Court and back down again, not once, not twice, but often several times. This led my former boss, Justice Lewis Powell, to recommend streamlining the review of death penalty cases. You see, he was personally opposed to the death penalty on policy grounds but he concluded that, if we were going to execute people, we’d better get our act together, make the decision, and get on with it. All the back and forth and delays made the entire criminal justice system look bad.

And if all that weren’t enough, we aren’t even consistent in doling out the imperfect justice we manage to come up with in death penalty cases. Several studies have shown that whether you’re condemned to death for killing your fellow citizen depends heavily on race. It’s not so much the race of the accused: death row is populated roughly evenly by whites and blacks, and more whites tend to be executed in the end. But when it comes to the race of the victim, there’s no comparison. Based on the data, you are three to four times more likely to be condemned to death if you kill a white person as you are if you kill a black person. The Supreme Court was asked to strike down the death penalty based on this skew in 1987, but it averted its collective eye, concluding there was nothing it could do if there wasn’t proof of intentional discrimination.

It can’t be just an oversight that has led us to this cascade of shockingly bad capital punishment procedures. One failure could be an accident. Two a perfect storm. But taken as a whole, none of the steps we take along the way to executing someone can make us take much pride in our professionalism and competence. There must be something deeper at work here.

All of us are beyond outraged when a man rapes and murders in the depraved way that Lockett did. And we can have a legitimate debate about whether it is ever moral and legal in such extreme circumstances to demand his life in return. But that debate is bizarre and wrong unless we first can convince ourselves that we’re truly committed to making sure that these defendants have the best possible legal representation; that they have full access to the best experts available; that they are tried before our most experienced and wisest judges; that they are fully protected from any taint of racial or other prejudice; and then, when their time comes, that they are put to death in the most humane and certain way possible.

We’ve proven to ourselves time and again that we’re just not willing to put forth that effort. At some point–at this point–we need to consider whether we’re not nearly as certain and committed to the act of execution as some of us thought we were. And, if we’re not, then it truly is morally wrong to continue the practice. If we can’t get it right, then it’s time to put a stop to the embarrassing blight that capital punishment has become.

David Westin, principal in Witherbee Holdings, LLC, is the former president of ABC News and author of Exit Interview. The views expressed are solely his own.

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