NBC News is drawing fire this week from multiple corners. New York Magazine on Sunday published a scathing report on the machinations behind the ouster of former Today Show co-anchor Ann Curry. A day later media observers learned that the “Peacock Network” promoted an interview with convicted child molester and famed college football coach Jerry Sandusky without initially telling viewers that the interview was actually conducted by a controversial conservative filmmaker, not by anyone at the network itself.
Both revelations are likely to be seen as serious breaches of the public trust, a trust with US news organizations that is already under significant strain, a study released last week by the nonprofit PewCenter for the People and the Press found.
The failure to inform viewers about the Sandusky interview may seem particularly egregious — not just because the network is granting air time to a convicted pedophile — but also because journalists are supposed to be open and transparent about our decision-making and how we cover news. We promise our audiences that we will be honest about who we are, accountable for our mistakes and open to a variety of ideas and perspectives. NBC failed to uphold at least two of these charges, although Matt Lauer did try to get out in front of some of the controversy Monday morning by interviewing John Ziegler, the conservative documentary writer and director who interviewed Sandusky. (Ziegler also believes that Sandusky’s trial was riddled with errors, but that’s another story for another day.)
Still, one can’t help but question why wasn’t NBC more up front in the first place? Perhaps in the rush to boost sagging ratings network executives simply forgot. Or maybe it has more to do with the fact that NBC is now owned by a major cable and entertainment conglomerate, Comcast and Universal Studios, which has replaced hard analysis with more sensational news. Gone are the heady days of serious news reporting when American journalists actually asked the questions and fact-checked their findings.
Then there’s the messy affair that exposed just how cutthroat the US news business really is. Curry, who is biracial with Japanese roots, had held down the news anchor position at Today since 1997 and worked her way up to co-anchor in 2011. Curry held the title for just one year when she was unceremoniously dismissed after ratings faltered against ABC rival, Good Morning America. Curry’s tearful exit is viewed as a setback for journalists of color, particularly Asians. Cable news has been in the spotlight in recent weeks for its lack of diversity, but truth be told, all of American journalism suffers from this same ailment, including network television newscasts. The dearth of minority journalists was only underscored when Curry was replaced by current Today Show co-anchor, Savannah Guthrie, who is white. Half a million viewers have abandoned Today since Curry’s ouster, in fact it has not won a week in ratings since Curry left the show, according to the Pew report. NBC executives have spent months telling viewers that long-time host Matt Lauer had nothing to do with his former co-anchor’s messy departure. Now we have confirmation for what we suspected all along– that NBC’s spin couldn’t be further from the truth.
Again, the network should have just come clean in the beginning. With journalism in a tailspin, the news media can ill-afford to purposely push viewers and readers away by sowing seeds of distrust. To the contrary, we need to figure out ways to re-engage and rebuild relationships with audiences. We can start by being open and honest.
The peacock became the official logo for NBC in 1957 and remains one of the most recognizable brands in the world. With high-powered anchors like David Brinkley, John Chancellor and Tom Brokaw, the peacock network was a shining example of how news was supposed to be done.
Moves like Curry’s dismissal and the Sandusky interview illustrate just how damaged the brand that is NBC News has become. The question going forward is whether NBC can regain its perch as a trusted news source or if it will continue a flight toward journalistic irrelevance.