McAdams On: When News Misses the Point

NARNIA, APPARENTLY: I happened to catch the “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams” this week and was dumbfounded by one story that passed for legitimate national news. The piece involved a phone conversation between Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and a man he assumed was a wealthy supporter.

The call came amid Walker’s bid to bust the public employee unions, which has raised protests in Madison and acrimony in the state assembly. Unions once represented recourse for the type of industrial abuses epitomized by Upton Sinclair’s exposé of the meat-packing industry in 1906. A modern-day workforce reliant on contributions from a largely overworked and underpaid tax base is bound to garner slightly less sympathy. And so it appears in Wisconsin.

I have for years considered charges of a “liberally biased” news media to be a manifestation of critical intolerance. There is certainly enough ranting on both sides to go around, it seems. With some exceptions, the larger news organizations still seem to aim for straight news.

So it surprised me first of all to read that Mr. Williams segued into the Wisconsin protest story with a comparison to the citizen uprising in Egypt. Maybe an intern is writing transitions at NBC, though someone should have caught that one. The report (opens in new tab) about the phone conversation is less explicable. Walker received a call from a “journalist” impersonating David H. Koch, a Libertarian billionaire philanthropist industrialist. The guy leads Walker into a conversation about the unions in which the governor is heard saying, “this is our moment. This is our time to change the course of history.”

Not exactly evocative of a hand-wringing fat cat waving a cigarette smoker, that. It sounds a bit more like a man unsure to whom he’s speaking. The piece wraps with the impersonator, Ian Murphy of the zine “Buffalo Beast,” telling Walker he’ll “fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time.” Walker, in a sort of polite but noncommittal tone simply says, “All right; that would be outstanding.”

The story is framed as if the exchange proves nefarious motives on Walker’s part. It makes no mention of a so-called “journalist” impersonating someone on a phone call being recorded unbeknownst to the called party. Recording a phone call without the consent of everyone on the call is illegal in several states and carries federal wire-tapping implications. Unfortunately, Wisconsin is not one of them, and neither is New York, where the “Beast” is based.

Murphy’s tactic may have been within the law, but nowhere in the arena of journalistic integrity. That a seasoned journalist like Brian Williams refers to it as“prank” phone call is unbelievable. That NBC based a report on something so inappropriate and underhanded is truly amazing, if not downright irresponsible.

The American public deserves a lot better from the guy who sits at one of the biggest news anchor desks in the world, and from an organization with more resources at its disposal than Solomon. The piece was a nut-shell illustration of why the public is so utterly distrustful of the news media. Let’s hope it was an anomaly that provoked serious organizational self-examination at NBC News.