How can a colleague investigate Brian Williams?

NBC would be better served with someone examining from the outside

Jill Geisler teaches and coaches managers worldwide and is affiliated with the Poynter Institute. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the What Great Bosses Know podcasts on iTunes U.

NBC investigative reporter Richard Esposito has a daunting assignment as he embarks on “journalistic fact-checking” of the integrity of colleague Brian Williams. That’s because his focus can’t be on Williams alone. To do this right, he must examine the infrastructure of his whole organization, especially its leadership.

For that reason, outsiders rather than insiders are often brought in to do the fact-finding when things go wrong in organizations. It’s hard to challenge the people who sign your paycheck. Your questions will make them uncomfortable at the least, outraged at worst. What’s more, there are news reports questioning whether NBC is even trying to investigate the events or is merely trying to pause and review the matter so it can assemble a more reasoned defense and move on.

That would be unfortunate, because I think the public wants the full facts from a pull-no-punches inquisitor. Did Williams make a stupid but rare mistake? Or has he demonstrated a pattern of misbehavior unbecoming any journalist, much less one who serves as the face of an entire news organization? So, how can the insider-as-investigator do his best, most credible work? Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Will Esposito have sufficient budget and time to do this right? NBC might prefer to resolve this quickly, rather than have the shadow hang over its news operation, but good digging takes time and resources.
  1. Will any internal whistleblowers, should they exist, be protected from recriminations? This is especially important as Esposito checks whether co-workers may have raised concerns about Williams’ representations of his work or passed along any messages from outsiders challenging his accuracy.
  1. Will Esposito and whomever is assisting him have access to people at all levels of NBC, including its top officials, and will they be cooperative? To understand why that’s important, read the 2004 external report on the Jack Kelley scandal at USA Today, one that involved egregious, long-standing invention of news stories by a star reporter. It found that staff members in parts of the paper worked in a “culture of fear” that penalized people for raising concerns and ultimately inhibited their speaking up.
  1. How transparent will the process be? How will the scope of his report be shared with the public? This is especially important if the investigation turns up positive for Williams, showing no evidence he’s a serial fabricator about his experiences, adventures, or accomplishments.

It’s important to underscore that Richard Esposito won’t be the person to decide the fate of Brian Williams. That’s in the hands of NBC leadership. But the quality of the work he does on this report is essential to the public’s understanding of whatever actions they take—and ultimately, to the credibility of NBC News.

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Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the "Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age" podcasts on iTunes U.