This week, the NBC News anchor Brian Williams made an apology for incorrectly recounting his experience on a helicopter flight during the early part of the war in Iraq. There continues to be controversy despite the apology and even more controversy about the actual wording of the apology. Perhaps not surprisingly for an event like this, there are emerging even more claims of similar misrepresentation of his personal experiences.
Many of the complaints come from journalists who value their reputation for reliable reporting of facts. Brian Williams is a reporting, not an opinion journalist. If he were not in such as high profile role, he likely would have been fired for this error. In his current position as the anchor of evening news at NBC, he represent his entire profession. In that role, they argue, there is an even stronger case to fire him in order to preserve the factual reliability of reporters and to show that the profession is capable of policing itself.
These are all good points and I’m watching like everyone to see how this all settles out. However, this episode illustrates a point I made earlier about distinguishing accountability from justice. For persons in leadership positions, we need accountability. We are more likely to get accountability from leaders if we suspend the need for justice. Brian Williams may be a journalist, but he is also a leader. His apology satisfies the accountability of his mistake. I do not see an immediate need for demanding a punishment for this error. Even if there are more instances of his exaggerating personal experiences do have get similar apologies, the existing apology suffices because his memory is not reliable. His apology can cover a lot of recollections of all distant events that were not immediately recorded as would be the practice for his job as a journalist. Journalists are tasked to report on immediate events, not to recall them later from memory.
As I discussed in that post, the accountability may convince us to demand his removal as a leader to make future decisions because we no longer trust his judgement. If we choose this action, it will be a vote of no confidence concerning future action rather than punishment for a past action. In this case, I don’t see a reason to distrust his judgement in his current role. The apology concerns a first-hand report from a distant personal experience, a type of recollection that is not relevant to his current role as a reporter of recent and breaking news. On the other hand, I would not object to his removal either as there are certainly many other well qualified reporters who could take his place in his current position.
In an earlier post, I describe the different perspective of justice in a dedomenocracy. The justice is served through the recording of data that will then become available for future decision making. There is no need for an explicit punishment because the record will forever record the fact that there was a lapse in trustworthiness. Future decisions (automatically computed based on data in a dedomenocracy) will incorporate this data and have career consequences that can replace the need for explicit punishment.
This case is similar. The record now has his admission that he misinformed us concerning a personal experience while working as a journalist. This record will burden his reputation for the remainder of his career. It is possible that this could be sufficient penalty for his transgression. For example, this may disqualify him for future first-hand reporting such as holding exclusive interviews.
In my discussions of dedomenocracy, one of the key features to assure its practicality is the need for public tolerance for making mistakes. We can not afford to punish everyone for all errors. On the contrary, we need to maximize our access to all talents to participate in future challenges. Removing a talented reporter for the sole sake of some sense of justice will deny the public the services of a talented individual for future activities. There is more to gain from tolerating a known transgression than from exacting a punishment the excludes the talented individual from further contributions to society.
It makes more sense to me to accept the apology and allow him to continue in his role. The apology adds a new record for our consideration. This record is that he admits that he previously misinformed us of one of his personal experiences. Also, the record is that he attributes this misinformation to his unreliable long-term memory. We can take that information into account as we continue to receive his services. There is little if any to gain by dragging this controversy out unless there is evidence he lied in the filing an breaking news story as a journalist where the events are very recent and not excusable by a fog of memory of a past event.