Will Brian Williams keep his job? One key factor that will help decide.

February 7, 2015
Williams from "NBC Nightly News" answers a question during the panel for NBC News at the NBC Universal sessions of the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena

Brian Williams from “NBC Nightly News” on a panel at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, California, January 10, 2010. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

Brian Williams, the flailing NBC News anchor, has dug himself into a hole. NBC has opened an internal investigation into his repeated false claims over the years that he was shot at during a 2003 helicopter ride when covering the war in Iraq. Now Williams, who has suspended himself from the broadcast, is apologizing, by saying he conflated a helicopter that was shot at with his own, which wasn’t. That is a tough hole to climb out of. Whether he can do it is likely to depend on whether the public sees him as a journalist or as a celebrity.

The public generally cuts celebrities a break when they misbehave because we are all engaged in a kind of narrative collaboration with celebrities — and cutting them breaks is part of the deal. Celebrities give us their lives, and we raise them up, tear them down and raise them up again.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams is applauded as he receives an honorary doctorate in humane letters during commencement ceremonies from George Washington University on the National Mall in Washington

NBC News anchor Brian Williams is applauded as he receives an honorary doctorate during commencement ceremonies from George Washington University in Washington, May 20, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

This is actually a form of intimacy — a way of documenting our connection to celebrity. But it is also a way of documenting their dependence on us. By making them and breaking them, we show that our collaboration is our power.

As a news anchor, Williams is a celebrity. But he is not quite like other celebrities. That is because he is also a journalist, and we place journalists in a different strata of celebrity. Journalists are regarded as authoritative. They convey the truth. We even have expectations of their behavior and demeanor, which is supposed to be dignified.

We are supposed to trust them, and we generally do. In fact, ironic as it may now sound, NBC has been running an ad that touts Williams’ trustworthiness.

It follows that when journalists lose the public trust, they lose us — and there are typically no second acts for them. Think of Dan Rather, who lost trust for using unverified documents questioning President George W. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. Rather lost the CBS News anchor chair and has been consigned to cable ever since. Or CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who peddled a bogus report on Benghazi, and who has lost her luster. Having a bit of trust for a journalist is like the pope being a little bit Catholic. It doesn’t parse.

But Williams isn’t a typical journalist. He had actively cultivated a very different kind of persona from that of the oracle favored by his anchor forebears. You could call it “The Tim Russert Syndrome.”

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Russert, the late host of NBC’s Meet the Press who died suddenly in 2008, went to great lengths to show that he was an Everyman and not a multi-millionaire TV personality. His Buffalo, New York, upbringing, his constant invocation of his working-class father “Big Russ,” his own girth and blue-collar style all fed the idea that he was one of us.

If we trusted him, it wasn’t because of his journalistic bona fides. It was because he was a big, bearish, down-to-earth, regular Joe with whom we could identify.

Russert was considered a deity at NBC, and he became a model for other reporters there, including Williams. Though attractive and always sharply dressed, Williams is no Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw — or even Rather. Like Russert, he was keen to develop a persona as an accessible fellow and regular Joe.

Williams hosted Saturday Night Live, he slow-jammed the news on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, appeared on The Daily Show and Late Show with David Letterman. He poked fun at himself and the whole stiff anchorman aura. He invoked his New Jersey roots. He even did a feature on his parents, two salts of the earth, which could have been ripped right out of the Russert playbook.

And, like Russert, if we trusted Williams, it was because we felt he was honest and decent and just one of the guys — not necessarily because he was a world-class reporter.

Even his embellishment of his helicopter landing in the early years of the war in Iraq may not have been completely about self-aggrandizement, as some critics have accused. It may have been a strained attempt to be one of the veterans he so clearly admires — and in whose brotherhood he so wants to be.

He wasn’t playing the dashing reporter under fire. He was playing exactly the opposite — the journalistic grunt who was saved by an Army grunt. After all, the whole story was predicated on the bond Williams felt for the sergeant who tended to his TV crew. They were all one happy family of ordinary Americans.

That leads to the second act. If his fabulism had just been journalistic malfeasance — or, more bluntly, lying — Williams almost certainly wouldn’t be accorded one. He would be sullied forever and would probably follow Rather down the cable rabbit hole, no matter how much trust he had garnered before the incident.

But if his tale is perceived by the public as a celebrity’s mistake — a bit of exaggeration either to seem bigger than he was or smaller than he was — he is likely to get that celebrity break and forgiveness.

It is a difficult dilemma for him and for NBC, a respected news organization. Either the public dismisses Williams’ journalistic credentials and saves his career because he is, really, just a celebrity. Or it holds him to journalistic standards and expels him because he is a reporter.

Journalist or celebrity — the public will render its verdict. And give him a second act or not.

 

13 comments

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I think Brian Williams should keep his job … if for no other reason but to remind him and all others who follow him that the job they do, including all others all all the other networks … is to report the news, NOT MAKE IT UP and to tell the TRUTH about it all everyday … without any political or personal agenda! If he could abide by this expectation and the NBC back that up and promote it’s position to this end … then let him stay!

Posted by TheMickSea | Report as abusive

The much bigger issue than WIlliams’ degree of success at conning his way back into the public’s trust is whether news on the big networks – ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC — is anything other than entertainment. I don’t think it much matters whether Williams is on TV or whether it’ some other coiffed actor reading a teleprompter – most of the news on TV is drivel. PBS is the exception and even they are not immune to the stylistic silliness of the big commercial networks. But at least an interview on PBS lasts more than 60 seconds and isn’t book-ended by 6 minutes of ads.

Posted by docrocinroc | Report as abusive

Well … this is a strange article. I don’t think the author would give Ronald Reagan a pass because he was an actor. But, then again maybe he would, as the Kennedy family fits the bill as celebrities.

The media/journalists can’t have it both ways. (Nor politicians.) Williams should be tossed, unceremoniously.

Posted by aeci | Report as abusive

I enjoy Brian delivering us ‘soft news’ every night, and he usually ends with a feel good story. The competition is probably complaining the loudest about what happened. It doesn’t bother me in the least what he did considering he doesn’t make those kind of errors in judgement. There are other news outlets that make a full time job out of twisting facts, and stretching the truth. NBC would be nuts not to just put this behind them and move on with Brian at the helm.

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

I turn on the news to find out what has happened over the course of the day. I expect newscasters to be journalists; not entertainers, not celebrities, not cowboys.

I expect reporters to report the facts; i.e. what actually happened. I do not want opinion, I do not want unverified stories, I do not want “fair and balanced”. All the journalist has to do is remember the Joe Friday maxim from the old Dragnet TV Show; “just the facts”.

Posted by ThoseWhoServe | Report as abusive

This question applies to the whole industry of journalism which lately, or not so lately, seems to have forgotten the rule that the journalist should not be the story. Anymore, news programs are just scripted performances (note the prevalance of news shows with two anchors on simulateously trading their delivery of the same story back and forth) by actors who seem not to have a real grasp of what they’re reporting.

Posted by Jaffar29 | Report as abusive

I believe that most men want to be part of the danger and excitement and even play the hero when action happens. They want to be able to say that they were there in the thick of it. It makes for a better story and it makes people look at them in awe. This is as old as time itself. Look at the histories of the ancients. From the Kings of Assyria to the pharaohs of Egypt, every single person has always blown victories or their part in the victory out of scale. The thing is, no one likes a liar, even if the lie like this one, wasn’t harming much of the history of the Iraq War.

Posted by Cranberries | Report as abusive

Let’s promote Jon Stewart (Comedy Central) to the anchor spot if we are willing to accept a celebrity rather than a journalist.

Posted by BobWhite2000 | Report as abusive

Through all this people seem to forget one fact. When Williams originally reported this story. He was accurate. He didn’t embellish the story. He told the truth. The problem came when he personally re-told the story in later years.

Posted by Broudar | Report as abusive

Brian Williams’ delivery of the news is welcoming, factual (except his own experiences in a few now uncovered cases), and mostly without politics, unlike certain other networks. He made a very serious mistake (probably more to be identified), but I have a feeling he’ll be given a chance to make amends. I for one hope he does.

If our politicians, who were elected with the sacred responsibility to represent us all (and that’s MUCH more important than Brian Williams role in our lives) were fired for distorting the truth or telling complete falsehoods, we’d have a huge empty building in D.C.

News is, in this social media generation, somewhat of an entertainment media and I always felt BW did a credible job of staying politically neutral and focusing on stories that matter and which we care about on any particular evening.

Hang in there BW. And, by the way, I’d prefer Lester Holt over CBS, FOX and ABC anchors (although the new ABC guy is pretty darned watchable (and, more importantly, listenable).

Posted by gb_in_dallas | Report as abusive

AMAZING how Hillary Clinton repeats her stolen valor story of “running from sipers in Bosnia, after death spiraling in” until she is called out, then doesn’t even have the honor to apologize, lies again saying she “misspoke”, But Brian Williams, a guy with a record of helping Vets, gets villified. Proof beyond reproach that the media is slanted Left/Socialist/Neofacist.

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive

Give the guy a break. So, his memory became a bit garbled over time. If you’re fortunate enough to live past 50, the same is ever more likely to happen to you, too! Bring him back. Journalist? Celebrity? Who cares? I see no reason why I shouldn’t continue to trust in Brian and the news he delivers. I will be lost if we lose him.

Posted by ja_dear | Report as abusive

I don’t know…he should have stuck to the truth and not inflated or exaggerated or even lied to millions of us watching him and trusting him so faithfully. We should hold journalists to a higher standard as in the old days. Now news is just another entertainment piece to amuse or distract us. Then sure, say whatever you think will boost the rating. Is junk what we want?

Posted by wintersong | Report as abusive