Reality TV

Brian Williams, 20009.  Photo (C) David Shankbone. Used under  Creative Commons copyright license. Thank you David.
Brian Williams, 2009. Photo (C) David Shankbone. Used under Creative Commons copyright license. Thank you, David.

Press Clippings. Brian Williams stepped in it on 26 March 2013 when he “misremembered” being shot down in Iraq while being interviewed on the David Letterman Show. It was not the first such memory incident for Williams and it would not be the last, but while that statement disappeared like lines from most talk show interviews, a later interview, that he gave to Stars & Stripes, a U.S. military publication, on 4 February 2015, did not. The writer who handled the interview, Travis Tritten, did some background research with soldiers who had knowledge of the event and that was all it took to start the storm.  Their account of the event did not jibe with Williams’ memory. The entire interview with Williams was published on 9 February 2015 by Stars and Stripes; you can listen to it on SoundCloud.  Soon, there were other discrepancies rising around other events that Williams had discussed. His on-the-scene experiences were called into questions and soon his expertise as a journalist was under fire. His authority as a trusted newsman vanished virtually overnight.
The results of Williams’ verbalizations have been serious: he has been suspended for six months by NBC–and is not allowed to talk to the press–and whether or not he will ever make it back to the anchor chair at NBC is uncertain.  The entire episode has been expensive for both sides: Williams previously anchored the top-rated network newscast and NBC had rewarded him, in December, with a 5 year/$10 million a year contract extension. Everyone involved in the current situation, from the heads of NBC News to the anchorman and his staff (supportive or un-supportive) has suffered an unwelcome hit.  I talked with a former NBC exec about this situation and he reminded me that if NBC wants him gone, they have the vehicle in the network’s “morality clause”, which covers not only acts of moral mis-judgement, but any other act which brings the employee or the network into a situation in which either could face public scandal, disrepute, ridicule or other non-favorable public comment and sentiments. By the standards of the morality clause, Williams is a goner if NBC wants him gone.
Why Williams would walk down the path of fact destruction is a question he will ask himself for the rest of his life. Whether or nor he can ever command again  an audience that is the size of the one he had at NBC Nightly News is very uncertain. It’s all very messy.  Leaks and innuendos about him and his situation are plentiful. The investigation into his past is on-going. There are stories now being leaked about Williams and his desire to do late night TV as a talk show host. If true, and such stories have to be considered speculation at this stage,  a clue to the underpinnings of the whole disastrous affair can be found: Williams had become a celebrity in addition to being a major network news anchor, and his not-infrequent visits to late night and other TV shows might have whetted his appetite for something more than reading the news. He might have needed some talking points for those appointments.
News is not entertainment and newsmen are not expected to be entertainers and so there was a choice to be made, but Williams obviously never saw the dichotomy  in that situation: that the people who  saw him as an authoritative, non-hyperbolic news anchor who brought them the facts every night (M-F) wanted only that certainty from him. They wanted headlines, not punchlines. Williams forgot, or did not pay attention to, the journalist credo that was responsible for such newsmen as Edward R. Murrow, Walker Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and Huntley& Brinkley. These newsmen reported the news; they did not go out of their way to make the news or be in the news. You can only have it one way if you want to maintain news credibility and so they made their choice and stuck to their guns. They had no other ambition but to be the best newsmen possible.
Perhaps Williams was a bit of victim in that he might have been more of an expert news reader than an expert journalist–his core skill being  setting the tone and delivery for the day’s events, not unearthing the details behind them. Perhaps he had a bit of insecurity. Maybe he wanted to be truly battle-tested and to collect the stories that indicate he was on the scene when the going got rough. Maybe he wanted the credibility of escaping a tough situation. Apparently he didn’t get what he wanted in the field and, instead, talked himself into the toughest situation of his career. The irony is powerful and crushing.
However it plays out when Williams’ suspension is up,  it will never be the same for him or the network.
James T. Aubrey, the often contentious President of the CBS Television Network in the 1960s, once said that “television is the only industry which eats its’ young”.
Dinner, in the form of the network news course, has been served.
Deep Background: A ClickPak on The Brian Williams Episode.
Panic in the NBC Newsroom (Source: New York Times)
How NBC And Brian Williams Made The Scandal Worse  (Source: New York Magazine)
When Memory Fails You (Source: New York Times) 
NBC Suspends Brian Williams for Six Months (Source: Wall Street Journal)
 How You Like Me Now?  (Source: New York Magazine)
Punchlines Of The Future  (Source: NewYork Times)
The Ghost of Anchors Past.  (Source: NPR)
Anchors Away. (Source: The New Yorker)
The Nightly News vs. The Tonight Show (Source: New York Magazine)
The Rescue Plan That Wasn’t  (Source:
Unintended Effects.  (Source: Politico)

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.