Unless you’ve been under a rock over the last week or so, you’re probably aware that the anchor for the “NBC Nightly News” Brian Williams, has been the subject of controversy, after it got revealed that Williams lied about being shot down in an NBC News helicopter in Iraq, back in 2003. The news anchor, first told the tale as a guest of David Letterman on his nightly talk-show. He repeated the story at a New York Rangers game, when the NHL team honored a retiring veteran who served in Iraq.
Speculation’s grown over the ensuing days that NBC would have to cut ties with the popular newsman, as his credibility took a severe hit within the news industry and for much of the viewing audience. However Tuesday night, “The New York Times,” reported that the network made the curious decision, to suspend Williams without pay for six-months, then return him to the anchor chair.
Williams presided over the highest rated network newscast, swamping his competition as he averaged 9.3 million viewers, five nights a week. He’s also developed a public persona away from the anchor-desk, with frequent appearances on Letterman’s show, the NBC staple “Saturday Night Live” and showed up on the networks former series “30 Rock,” from time to time.
Before we get into the damage that Williams seemingly did to his career, lets discuss the decision that NBC made. Before the network announced how they planned to resolve things, the choices seemed pretty clear, for NBC. The move that would have earned them respect from their peers and viewers alike, was to terminate Williams. A network news anchor’s reputation and credibility have to be beyond reproach, they are the “Gate-Keepers,” the people we invite into our homes, to provide us accurate information on the stories of the day. It’s doubtful that Williams has enough of the public-trust right now, to do that job well.
The other decision the network could have chosen was to stand behind Williams, saying that his record at NBC News far outweighs the foolish decision he made to falsify a personal anecdote. The network could have leveled with the public; Look folks, Brian did something really stupid, that he truly regrets. However, we believe that Williams has proven himself enough since taking the anchor-chair to withstand this crisis and we support him fully. It would have at least been a gutsy move, for NBC.
Instead the President of NBC News Deborah Turness stated in a memo “This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.” The Chief Executive of NBC/Universal Stephen P. Burke wrote “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”
Burke went on to say that Williams expressed great remorse in a private conversation and that the networks “rooting,” for him. So does NBC truly believe that after serving a six-month suspension, Brian Williams can take back the anchor desk with his credibility restored?
During the sixties, seventies and into the eighties, the networks nightly newscasts, were a staple in American homes. Long before the days of the Infotainment Networks that cable’s brought into our homes, news came on only in designated time slots. The local newscast would start at 6:00 pm and depending on what market you lived in, the network newscasts aired at either 6:30 pm, or 7:00 pm. That was our main source of information, until the newspaper came out the next morning. And the news anchors were like demigods for many families.
Former CBS news anchor, the late great Walter Cronkite, was voted the most trusted man in America in the sixties and his peers on the other casts, such as Huntley and Brinkley, along with John Chancellor on NBC, Howard K. Smith, Frank Reynolds and Peter Jennings were also highly regarded. Through all the turmoil of assassinations, protest-marches, the Vietnam war and civil unrest, we turned to these men to try to make sense of what was going on around us. We knew these men would give us accurate, timely and unbiased information, sounds almost quaint now, doesn’t it?
It’s a different playing-field in 2015, than it was even 30-years-ago, with many Millennials getting most of their news from the “Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” (although not for long, as Stewart announced this week, he’ll leave the show this year.) We have competing Infotainment Networks, FOX News for the Far-Right and MSNBC for the Center-Left, who give us plenty of commentary, but don’t provide a whole lot of information. One can also get the bulk of your news from the Internet, a path I’ve found myself taking more and more often.
The network nightly newscasts, don’t have the cache they had in an earlier era, however they still retain importance and we count on them to give us the unfiltered information with as little bias as possible. Many of our citizens still use those nightly newscasts as their primary source of information. That’s why it’s still important to have people in those anchor chairs whose credibility can’t be questioned, Williams has fallen out of that category.
If Williams had a substance-abuse problem, getting suspended without pay, could have been a severe enough punishment to get the viewers back on his side, upon his return. This is a totally different animal though, sitting on the sidelines without getting a paycheck, isn’t going to earn Williams’ viewer’s trust back. How can he report on a story about a Congressman lying, without viewers automatically thinking about his incident? I don’t believe it can work.
We’ve watched powerful people commit actions over the last few years, as if they were invulnerable, even though scores of others ruined their reputations doing the same things, these folks think they’re smarter than everybody else. We’ve seen it here in New York State, as our former Governor Elliot Spitzer, ruined a possible White House run, by stepping out on his wife with call-girls.
The biggest question that remains for me, is how Williams expected that his concocted tale would never catch up with him. There were far too many people that witnessed the incident, for him not to eventually get caught, was that what he wanted? Could this have possibly been some sort of cry for help? He wouldn’t be the first person who seemingly had it all, except for satisfaction.