On Saturday, "NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams announced that he would be temporarily vacating his chair because his personal brand recently came in direct and injurious contact with his professional obligations.
This is not, of course, what he said. He said he was stepping away because "it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news due to my actions."
His actions involved enthralling audiences, including the not easily enthralled David Letterman, with a tale of how, during Williams’ coverage of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, his helicopter was forced down by enemy fire. Just another part of Brian Williams’ personal brand: intrepid journalist, great storyteller and excellent late-night guest.
Only the story wasn't true.
So Williams is not vacating his chair because now, suddenly, he’s too much part of the news. He’s been a part of the news for years, joking it up with Jon Stewart, slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, and guest-starring on “30 Rock.” His daughter, Allison Williams, cannot get a review, be it for “Girls” or “Peter Pan” without her father being mentioned.
No, Williams is stepping aside because this time the news is bad. In telling that story, he chose to bolster the Brian Williams brand at the expense of the "NBC Nightly News."
Modern journalism is beset by many challenges, logistical and fundamental, but none are as potentially dangerous as its growing cultivation of and reliance on personal brand.
“Broadcast News,” which remains the prophetic primer on the modern news industry, hinged on that conflict. “Let’s never forget, we are the real story, not them,” said Aaron, the old-fashioned television reporter of “Broadcast News” played by Albert Brooks in sarcastic condemnation of the more handsome Tom, portrayed by William Hurt. More professionally flexible than Aaron, Tom had edited in his own tearful reaction to a report featuring an interview with a rape victim.
By today's standards, of course, Tom's actions would seem perfectly acceptable to most — his reaction was sincere and unplanned, and we have come to accept a reporter's, or anchor's, reaction and/or work getting the story as part of the story.
Indeed, we now expect our journalists to be personalities, to exist outside the confines of their day jobs in exciting and entertaining ways. It's not enough to deliver the news, star journalists need to tweet humorously and/or with special insight. They need to make cameos in comedies, appear on talk shows and in magazines, to share their style secrets and personal lives, and offer across-the-board commentary.
Remember when Dan Rather reviewed “The Newsroom”? The Aaron Sorkin series dealt with these issues, but was always at its most powerful when anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) let loose a particularly righteous personal rant.
Although he didn’t go daytime like fellow designer brand CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Williams took personality journalism to the next logical step in 2012 with the short-lived news magazine “Rock Center with Brian Williams.” But he was far more successful guesting on other shows, where he was recognized as a dependable raconteur.
And raconteurs are, by definition, more interested in the dramatic value of the story than the facts.
This is not to diminish Williams’ responsibility in telling, and retelling a false and patently self-aggrandizing version of his 2003 experience. Many journalists manage to be engaging and insightful guests without making up stories about being shot at by rocket launchers. The role of news anchor requires a certain amount of star power, but the business Williams chose is journalism, the basic rule of which is: First, tell no lies.
As the many promos for his work on NBC ponderously delight in reminding us, his brand is anchored in trustworthiness. So sticking scrupulously to the facts is not only a requirement of his job, it is in his own personal best interest.
As he is discovering now.
But Williams' success, like that of many of his colleagues, did not stem only from being a good journalist. No, he became a star because he is good on TV, and not just delivering the news. Like many anchors and reporters, Williams established an attractive personality outside the newsroom, writing and talking about his thoughts and experiences in all sorts of media including late-night talk shows.
Where, let’s face it, the demand is not for objective recounting of events (boring!), but for opinion, personality and colorful stories.
It is the rare (and possibly nonexistent) person who can objectively chronicle his or her own life. We all self-edit, often subconsciously, for a variety of reasons. We do not mean to offend, so we recount, and perhaps even remember, a softer tone. The fear we felt in answer to a perceived threat was real, so that threat becomes, in retelling, more frightening.
The exaggerated heroism of Williams' account may be what rankles most, but who hasn't told a "big fish" tale? Stories evolve, in great part, to please the audience, the details manipulated to make a bigger point.
Except when you're a journalist. Many of whom regularly take the standard, and perhaps wiser, course of downplaying their experiences in the field. Williams, who on Sunday canceled a previously scheduled appearance on "Late Show With David Letterman" later this week, would be in an entirely different position now if other members of that endangered flight had come forward to point out that he was in far more danger than he had publicly acknowledged.
The best, most rigorous journalists make mistakes, through omission, commission and accidental stupidity. But the integrity of the profession lies on the public's faith that every reporter is doing her or his level best to relay information as accurately as humanly possible in every public forum.