By: Kris Schneider
Almost immediately following the revelations that NBC News anchor Brian Williams had misrepresented numerous events while reporting the news, industry critics and members of the public alike jumped on Williams’ back, calling for his head. We didn’t even have all the facts yet. We still don’t have all the facts. What we do know at this point is that Williams, anchor of NBC’s flagship newscast “NBC Nightly News,” has been suspended by NBC for six months without pay. However, the media firestorm that followed Williams for days led to a cultural divide on social media. Crucial questions were asked- “Is this a big deal?” “What should the punishment be?”
Unfortunately for Williams’ supporters, the story here did not stop with his 2003 reports out of Iraq. It came to light that Williams may have exaggerated events he reported on during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as well as a rocket attack in Israel in the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War. There is an important point to make here, however. Although Williams’ ethics and credibility can certainly be called into question here, can his character? Will viewers be able to look past this blip in an otherwise spotless career? Industry experts are already predicting that Williams may not even return from his suspension. How did it come to this?
The answer can be found by researching the development of news organizations over time, and how different today’s broadcasts are from those of the Cronkite era. Brian Williams is essentially a brand. He appears regularly on late-night talk shows, sitting down with David Letterman on CBS and Jimmy Fallon on NBC to talk not only about news, but to almost horse around. Williams has even landed on “The Daily Show,” speaking to host Jon Stewart on multiple occasions. Heck, Williams even hosted NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” once. Not one of the aforementioned things would have occurred during the tenure of Walter Cronkite at CBS. The news anchor was the news anchor. Not a celebrity, not an entertainer. That being said, the industry has transformed the news anchors of today into mini-celebrities. Williams, along with his colleagues on the dial at CBS, Scott Pelley, and ABC, David Muir, have been so pushed by the need for ratings gold that the purpose and goal of the news organization is not always taken into consideration.
This is not totally Brian Williams’ fault. If this had occurred 30 years ago, the six-month suspension would have more than sufficed for his actions. I am not trying to downplay what Williams did. He embellished the truth on numerous occasions, betraying the trust that millions have placed in him over his ten year tenure. However, the backlash and calls for his head would simply not have come to fruition years ago, before everyone with an opinion was given a megaphone with the dawn of the internet and social media. Yes, Williams would have faced disciplinary action regardless of the era. But the court of public opinion would have been much smaller and less divisive. Brian Williams would not have been the leading stories on CNN and Fox News Channel for a week had this occurred 30 years ago. The apology on air by Williams would have pretty much been the end of the story here. But the blood hungry mob would not stop. Something had to happen to Williams. On Saturday, he announced that as Managing Editor of “NBC Nightly News,” he would remove himself from his own broadcast as things worked themselves out. There was really a criticism for everything, as Williams was then lashed out at for not taking it a step further, resigning. To be honest, it would have been extremely premature to resign at that point, and I still do not believe that Williams has “no choice” but to resign. America is forgiving. As a nation, we can move on. And the six months may be just long enough for the headlines to die down and for the public to forget about the details of the suspension in a way. Of course, six months can also be just too long that viewers become accustomed to the interim anchor, longtime NBC newsman Lester Holt.
America rushed to judgement here. I am not suggesting that Williams should not have received the punishment doled out to him by NBC, but I believe that certain people have been attempting to turn his career upside down, as if Williams had no accomplishments. Here’s one- trust. For ten years, America trusted Brian Williams. And even if that trust is diminished now, it was still quite a feat to guide this country through some tough times. Brian Williams took America through two wars in the Middle East. Brian Williams took America through the bombings at the Boston Marathon. There is something likable about Brian Williams that led to this inherent trust, and I do not subscribe to the theory that his trust through the years should be disregarded “because he could have been lying the entire time.” That is a ridiculous notion. We are at a stage where people are disappointed in Brian Williams. But nobody is angry with him. In my opinion, the only obstacle standing between Williams and his anchor chair at the end of the suspension is credibility. Can NBC take the risk that his credibility may have completely tanked over the six months? Time will tell. And ratings will paint another picture- can “Nightly News” continue without Brian Williams? Over the next six months, executives and analysts at NBC will be scouring the daily data coming in about Lester Holt. If the ratings stabilize, it may be too big a risk to reinstate Williams.
Brian Williams was the 23rd-most trusted man in the United States two weeks ago. He now stands at 835th. Two weeks ago, Brian Williams was the anchor and managing editor of the nation’s number one evening news broadcast. Now, he is off the air for six months. No matter what your personal opinion is on the matter, you must consider the wider picture when deciding how you feel about Brian Williams. Can you sit in front of the television screen on a hot evening in August and take him seriously? More importantly, can America?