The curious case of Brian Williams

NBC anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for six months without pay.  This will give the network and Williams enough time to figure out whether they will take him back or whether he wants to come back.

The “scandal” surrounding his suspension is curious.  One would think that in a world where everything that happens (especially to a public figure) is either captured on video or has witnesses, that Williams would not have intentionally embellished his Iraq war story. Certainly he knew that telling such a dramatic tale would come back to haunt him, one way or another.  You can call him a liar, but you can’t call him stupid.

Which is why I think the entire episode is so strange.  He obviously doesn’t suffer from dementia.  His only ailment, perhaps, is an oversize ego.  It could be that on the spur of the moment, while telling David Letterman the story, he just added a few details that never happened.  It made for a better story on late night TV, and he took a chance.

In an age of instant news 24 hours a day, one can hardly make the case that the TV anchor has much of a role anymore.  There was a time when Americans were glued to their TV sets every night to hear from Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley.  What they said mattered, and if they said it, it was the truth.  Today, I don’t think TV anchors or newspersons have the same credibility.  The competition to be first and to be the most dramatic has lowered the credibility of all news organizations.  It is not at all unusual for a CNN or New York Times or any of the other major, mainstream media to file a report, only to change it later when the facts become known.  They no longer even apologize for it, just file an “update.”  Being wrong is now part of the news business.

This is not even to mention how NBC bungled the entire fiasco.  Someone needs to give NBC a crisis management seminar.  While the mainstream and social media world took hold of the story, NBC seems to be in a daze.  There was no immediate and forceful taking of the reins.  No handling of the situation. No outrage over what their most prized possession had done.  Instead they were thinking about damage control.  How to keep a very profitable show on the air, even if it meant its star has lost all credibility.

Few people feel sorry for Williams, even if he will forfeit $5 million this year.  He probably can get by on the other half quite nicely.  But one still has to wonder why.  All a newsperson has is his/her credibility and when that is gone, he/she has nothing left.  Williams’ credibility has taken a dire hit and in six months we’ll see if he can recover.

I am not placing any bets either way.