Critic’s Notebook: NBC keeps Brian Williams fiasco in the news cycle
When did making “a number of inaccurate statements about his own role and experiences covering events in the field” become a viable job history for an MSNBC breaking-news anchor?
On Thursday, apparently. That’s when NBC announced the fate of Brian Williams, who was suspended earlier this year as anchor of “NBC Nightly News” when it was revealed that he had conflated his role in a 2003 attack on U.S. helicopters in Iraq.
After months of investigation turned up similar inaccuracies, though not “for the most part” on news platforms, NBC decided that Williams was no longer fit for duty on NBC or the “Nightly News.”
But he would do just fine as a breaking-news anchor on MSNBC.
Where, one can only imagine, the joy is palpable. There’s nothing like becoming a rehab facility for tainted colleagues to make journalists want to do their very best work. Anyone seeking the services of Rachel Maddow or any MSNBC reporter might want to be on the phone right now.
Oh, and congratulations, Mr. Lester Holt, for upholding the standards of journalism, exuding grace under pressure and becoming, also as of Thursday, the first solo African American anchor of the nightly news. Seriously. We will miss your chilling true-crime intros on “Dateline,” but you have done an admirable job in less-than-optimal circumstances.
Moreover, your steady numbers prove that one doesn’t need to be a self-mythologizing, multi-platform performing brand to hold an audience; perhaps being a good solid news anchor is enough.
Not that anyone is going to be talking about this, or you, because Brian Williams is once again center stage.
That’s problem No. 1: For better or for worse, when you are the news, it is difficult for you to cover the news. Even “breaking news,” which NBC apparently and inexplicably considers the least important bit, the arena in which a disgraced journalist can rebuild trust.
What if the breaking news involves the revelation of a public figure caught in a big fat lie? What’s the Brian Williams play on that one?
The potential for scathing commentary is, as you see, boundless — oh, to be a fly on the wall in the writers room of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” Comedic monologues and memes are not, traditionally, the hoped-for result of any scandal resolution, particularly when the issue seemed so clear cut.
If Williams’ actions were so far beyond the bounds of journalistic integrity that he could not return to the “Nightly News,” then he should have been fired. Or resigned.
Although Williams is taking what is being described by anonymous sources as a significant pay cut, demotion, as any HR rep will tell you, is almost never a good idea. And the higher up the personnel, the worse that idea, and the likelihood of resentment among all concerned, becomes.
NBC may be trying to help a man they consider a good guy who got carried away, or maybe just protect a long-term investment. (Williams was in his second year of a five-year contract that paid him $10 million a year when the scandal broke.) Either way, it’s difficult not to see this move as “special treatment,” a case of one-percenters taking care of each other.
Even if the “second chance” impetus is sincere, punishment, even in the form of lesson-learning, is not supposed to be part of the deal at this level. Who wants to watch a man they once respected work his way out of the doghouse? As he’s supposed to be, you know, reporting the news?
A jury-rigged solution like this might fly in another wing of NBCUniversal, but this is the news division, in which the demands of the profession are supposed to trump all else. Where transparency should at least get a nod.
Yet NBC has declined to make its investigation public, and when Williams finally breaks his silence Friday, it will be to NBC colleague Matt Lauer, who is no stranger to in-house insanity and who recently came under fire for his softball interview of Rachel Dolezal.
Let the healing begin!
One assumes that Williams will use his time with Lauer to apologize in a more thorough and candid way than his original rather cavalier admission: that in going out of his way to thank a veteran, he inadvertently misremembered something that happened a long time ago and that certainly involved him sleeping under a plane in the desert.
Perhaps it will be a moving interview and a convincing, revelatory apology, but it comes very late in the game, which is the strangest aspect of the whole messy scandal. I don’t know how many episodes of “The West Wing” or “Scandal” or the life of Bill Clinton a person has to watch to know that it is imperative to get out in front of a breaking scandal, to be fast and frank and thorough in both admission and apology, but Williams was apparently too busy slow-jammin’ the news to pay attention.
He had a lot of goodwill among viewers, and many people, including fellow journalists, were more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. We all make mistakes, and, after a good long hash-out, Americans love to forgive people. We are a nation of second and third and 15th acts. We live to applaud positive transformation.
If Williams, with his obvious quest for personal brand domination, was playing a bit too closely with fire, well, lots of people would have understood that. Most journalists understand the need to become more accessible, more multi-platform, more fun.
When Williams discovered, like the good-natured owner of Jurassic World, that a push for a sexier attraction with bigger viewership can wind up biting you in the butt, many would have been grateful for the lesson, more than willing to forgive a candid admission along those lines.
Instead, there were four months of “investigation” resulting in this Mao-like call for rehabilitation, with the cynical bonus-hope that Williams will boost MSNBC ratings. Which he may, at least short-term, as everyone tunes in to see what he does and what he says and how the mood seems and if anyone good leaves because of him.
If nothing else, this decision extends the news cycle of the Brian Williams story for at least a few more months, which is not good for anyone. Much of the ensuing press reports, including a recent article in Vanity Fair, relied heavily on unnamed sources, but they have offered often scathing portrayals of all the major participants.
And now there will be follow-ups.
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