When NBC suspended its main news anchor in February, it put out a statement saying his actions were inexcusable. Taking him off air for six months without pay, said NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke, was a “severe and appropriate punishment” for having “jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News.”
Williams had already apologized for misrepresenting what happened to him covering the Iraq war a dozen years ago–falsely saying his helicopter had been shot down. When that didn’t quell the furor, he took himself off air “for several days.” It wasn’t nearly enough.
By stopping short of firing Williams, NBC left the door open for his return–just a crack. But the door could easily slam shut if the internal investigation still underway uncovers evidence Williams did more than embellish one war story. Questions also have been raised about his reporting after Hurricane Katrina. If it turns out he’s a serial fabricator, I think he’s toast.
Why so harsh? “It’s a thing you build over time…called trust.” That what NBC was selling in a series of promos just two months ago, marking Williams’ 10th anniversary in the anchor chair.
Whatever trust Williams had, it’s seriously compromised. NBC clearly hopes that putting him on a shelf will protect the rest of the news division from further damage. But that’s no slam dunk. It’s not just possible but probable that others within the news division were aware Williams was fibbing about Iraq, and that he’d been doing it for years. What does that say about NBC’s commitment to truth and accuracy? If the network really wants to put this behind them, they’ll likely have to do more than punish the figurehead.
NBC News will survive without Williams. Lester Holt is a well-qualified and experienced anchor who has been the network’s designated substitute for years. And Andrew Tyndall, who monitors network news, says it doesn’t matter all that much who is in the chair.
Network nightly newscast audiences are remarkably stable, if gradually aging and declining. Audience size is determined much more by the performance of their lead-in local newscasts than by the identity of the newsreader. And, as said, journalistic content is determined much more by the performance of correspondents and producers than by the newsreader’s personality.
Could Williams resurrect his career? Of course he could. Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute even thinks he could return to the anchor chair. He wouldn’t be the first journalist caught fudging the truth to get a second chance, and Americans love a redemption story. But I’m not so sure. I have trouble imagining how the network would deal with more “lyin’ Brian” memes, which are bound to resurface even if Williams offers an abject apology.
— Calhoun (@linkcalhoun) February 5, 2015
One thing is sure in today’s network news world: money talks. “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” is the only network newscast in eight years to draw more than 10 million viewers in a week. If the ratings plummet without him, NBC just might try to find a way to bring him back.
A version of this post was previously published at NewsLab