Journalism is in trouble on all fronts these days. Trust in reporters — TV, online and print — is eroding; there are mass layoffs across the industry; charges of bias fly from every corner; and the relentless pressure of the 24-hour news cycle, plus social media, is steadily shredding what safeguards remain to prevent errors in reporting.
You might think that a respected news anchor caught telling whopper after whopper, for years on end, including ones related directly to news stories he had covered, would be the first to get the boot — especially considering how many other respected journalists have had to leave the profession (like the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter form Southern California’s Daily Breeze who had left to work in PR so he could pay the rent).
Not if that anchor is Brian Williams, apparently.
Williams, who reportedly signed a five-year, $50M contract last December as anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” was suspended for six months without pay after being caught telling one of what turned out to be several stories — related on latenight talk shows, in speeches and elsewhere — that were either vast exaggerations or concocted out of thin air.
A Catholic high school and Catholic University attendee, Williams may have even engaged in embellishing a story about meeting Pope John Paul II during the pontiff’s visit to CUA in 1979.
That wouldn’t have pleased Williams’ mom, whom he once described as “a very old-school Catholic.”
Now, after a sojourn in NBC purgatory, Williams is coming back. After doing an obligatory mea culpa interview on Friday, June 19, with Matt Lauer on “Today,” he’ll now be doing breaking news and special events on NBC’s sister news-cablenet MSNBC.
The best words to describe Williams’ interview with Lauer are not “shockingly honest,” as his loyal NBC colleague Chuck Todd of “Meet the Press” said on Friday.
Better words are obfuscation, weaseling and deflecting, as Williams used passive voice and phrasing that implied that somehow this situation fell from the sky on his head, and he’s just not sure how it all happened. He blamed his “ego,” his need to feel important, etc. Like this:
Matt, it is clear that afterward, when I got out of the building, when I got out of the realm, I used a double standard. Something changed. I got sloppier and I said some things that were not true.
“Sloppy” is what you say when you don’t fact-check a name or a number. It’s not the word to refer to claiming that you were riding in a Chinook helicopter in Iraq when it came under enemy fire (which it didn’t), or that you saw a dead body (or bodies) floating by in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (which he didn’t).
I told the story correctly for years before I told it incorrectly. … I was not trying to mislead people. That, to me, is a huge difference here.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t always recall what I had for breakfast, but being shot at and seeing dead bodies would stick with me. So, unless Williams was delusional or suffering from serious memory problems — he lied.
Lied. But that word or any one like it never came out of his mouth.
And for a newsman, credibility is everything. Telling the truth as you see it, as the facts indicate, is everything. Even journalists who let their personal preferences dictate the tone of their reporting usually don’t turn to actual fabrication.
That is, unless they’re Stephen Glass of the left-leaning The New Republic or Jayson Blair of The New York Times, who didn’t just stretch the facts but plagiarized or outright wrote fiction. By the way, Glass is now a lawyer. Heh. But at least, neither of them is still working as a journalist.
Supposedly the distinction between Williams and these two is that Williams lied mostly when not at the anchor desk. Said NBC in a statement:
The statements in question did not for the most part occur on NBC News platforms or in the immediate aftermath of the news events, but rather on late-night programs and during public appearances, usually years after the news events in question.
Well, that makes all the difference. We now have a new bar — keep your lies (mostly) off our air, and you get to continue to report the news on our bush-league cable channel.
Or at least, that’s what I have to believe NBC News thinks of MSNBC, since it’s deemed Williams beneath its dignity but just fine for the cablenet (the ratings for which are so low that one supposes not much damage can be done).
Williams has apologized, sort of, for his fantastical tales. Should he be forgiven? If he’s truly contrite, sure. And I hope he’s been to Confession. But we all must serve the temporal punishment for our sins, and if no justice is seen, it can cause a scandal.
For NBC News to act as if Williams’ misdeeds (which strike at the heart of his reputation as an honest broker of the news) are forgotten, and to put him back in the anchor chair, just says to all journalists that “Broadcast News” was right — if you have a handsome face, a charming manner and great hair, your core character doesn’t matter. You get to keep your job.
Here’s one of the best speeches from James L. Brooks’ outstanding and prescient 1987 film about a network-news operation, in which smart but schlubby reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is speaking to producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter). She’s gone ga-ga over the network’s pretty-boy anchorman (William Hurt), who’s later found to have fabricated a reaction in a broadcast. He’s describing to her what the Devil will look like if he appears.
Aaron: He will be attractive! He’ll be nice and helpful. He’ll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He’ll never do an evil thing! He’ll never deliberately hurt a living thing… he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny little bit. And he’ll talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.
Of course, Brian Williams isn’t the Devil, but he also doesn’t have to stay on the air, and NBC News doesn’t have to keep him there. That’s his choice, and the network’s. He could have retired, written a heartfelt memoir, gotten Oprah or Diane Sawyer to do a tearful tell-all interview and then gone off to make big bucks on the lecture circuit.
For all I know, he’ll do any or all of the above down the line. But for now, he’s going to report the news, and we’ll choose whether to believe what he says.
On the upside, veteran NBC newsman Lester Holt, who’s been described as a “humble and loving Christian,” now has the “NBC Nightly News” anchor job.
Amen to that.
Image: Screenshot from “Today”