Why Brian Williams’ return will be a disaster for NBC News

Brian Williams
Brian Williams

I really don’t understand why the folks at NBC News think serial fabricator Brian Williams can be rehabilitated. CNN’s Brian Stelter reports that Williams’ second act could be announced as early as today.

Yes, Williams is receiving a significant demotion — he’s supposedly being shipped off to MSNBC, which had a nice run as the liberal alternative to Fox News before plunging into unwatched obscurity the past couple of years. But given that NBC News major domo Andrew Lack is reportedly seeking to revive MSNBC with an injection of actual news, how can a guy who set fire to his own credibility be part of that? As Jay Rosen put it on Twitter: “NBC has to explain how he’s lost the credibility to anchor the nightly news but still has the cred to do the news on MSNBC.”

Remember, we’re not just talking about Williams’ lies regarding his helicopter ride in Iraq. There have been multiple instances in which he overstated the facts or just made stuff up. The New York Times reports:

Almost immediately after the controversy erupted, NBC opened an investigation into Mr. Williams, led by Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer for investigations. Over the last several months it uncovered 10 to 12 instances in which he was thought to have exaggerated or fabricated accounts of his reporting, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

And just wait until one of Williams’ anonymous enemies posts a “closely held” clip reel on YouTube that is said to document his worst moments. The Washington Post has this to say:

The video, produced by the team of NBC journalists assigned to review Williams’s statements in media appearances, makes a vivid case against the anchor, according to people familiar with it, isolating a number of questionable statements Williams has made.

Professional cynic Michael Wolff told old friend Mark Leibovich recently that NBC never should have abandoned Williams in the first place. Rather, he said, the network’s executives should have done their best Roger Ailes imitation and defended him as aggressively as Fox News has defended its own business interests.

But this is stupidity masquerading as sagacity. NBC News is not the Fox News Channel. Fox’s product is right-wing talk. NBC News’ purported product is news, served up truthfully. In that market, Williams’ value plunged to zero or close to it within days of his exposure last winter. (The next person who says he would rather see Williams back in the anchor chair rather than Lester Holt will be the first.) I suspect Wolff knows that, but the man does enjoy being provocative.

As for Williams, he needs to leave journalism. And it’s not up to NBC to help him figure out how.

Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Also published at WGBHNews.org.

George Stephanopoulos has (had) a secret

Funny. Just yesterday I was discussing with my students why journalists don’t give money to politicians. Of course, George Stephanopoulos only plays one on TV.

Dylan Byers of Politico reports that Stephanopoulos has donated $50,000 to the Clinton Foundation. He notes:

Stephanopoulos never disclosed this information to viewers, even when interviewing author Peter Schweizer last month about his book “Clinton Cash,” which alleges that donations to the Foundation may have influenced some of Hillary Clinton’s actions as Secretary of State.

So far ABC News says it’s standing behind Stephanopoulos. It’s certainly not a Brian Williams-level transgression, but there’s no question that this is unethical and that he deprived viewers of important information. (And to be clear: Disclosure is necessary but insufficient. He never should have given the money in the first place.)

Will he be able to brazen it out? Probably. The fact that he was donating to a politically wired charity rather than to a political campaign will help. But still.

Why Jon Stewart is the anti-Brian Williams

Jon Stewart. Photo via Wikipedia.
Jon Stewart. Photo via Wikipedia.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

Two high-profile departures from the hot celebrity glare of television were announced late Tuesday. One of those leaving is among the most respected people in media. The other is a charlatan.

The object of our respect, of course, is Jon Stewart, who announced he’ll be retiring from “The Daily Show” later this year. A satirist of the highest order, Stewart has been our truth-teller-in-chief since 1999. The charlatan, needless to say, is Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months without pay as anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News.” It’s hard to imagine he’ll be back.

The juxtaposition of these two seemingly disparate events has not gone unnoticed. A six-column headline on the front of today’s New York Times reads “Williams Suspended, at Low Point in His Career; Stewart to Depart at High Point.” The departures also say a lot about our changing perspectives on journalism and the people who bring it to us. As I (and many others) noted when Williams first got into trouble last week over his lies about coming under fire in Iraq, there was a time when Walter Cronkite — a network anchor — was considered “the most trusted man in America.”

Today I would argue that no man or woman can lay claim to being the most trusted. The culture is too fractured. Andy Warhol’s old dictum has long since been updated to “On the Web, we will all be famous to 15 people.” Stewart, though, may be the most trusted person in the media for a certain subset that I would define as deeply interested in the news, though not necessarily hyper-informed; urban; and liberal, but skeptical of politicians regardless of ideology. He is the most vital media critic of our time, a worthy successor to A.J. Liebling and Ben Bagdikian.

Stewart is also the ideal media commentator for the Internet age. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that I’ve rarely sat down at 11 p.m. to watch “The Daily Show.” I’m far more likely to catch clips on YouTube or watch bits and pieces of previous episodes through my cable provider’s on-demand offerings.

Though Stewart, 52, and Williams, 55, are nearly the same age, they seem to be from completely different generations, with Williams representing the outmoded sit-down-and-let-us-tell-you-what’s-important paradigm. Cronkite himself was said to be uncomfortable with his signoff (“And that’s the way it is”) because he knew it wasn’t true. We can only guess what Williams believes to be true. Which brings me to another important difference between Jon Stewart and Brian Williams. At a time when we have become increasingly uncomfortable with old-fashioned notions about objectivity, many media observers have called for a shift to transparency.

Stewart is utterly transparent — we know what he believes and what perspective he brings to his commentary. Williams tried to project the sort of authority that’s rooted in objectivity. It worked, more or less, until it didn’t. (An aside about objectivity. Straight news, as opposed to analysis or opinion, ought to be offered up with fairness and neutrality. Unfortunately, “objectivity” has all too often come to mean something else — a quest for balance at all costs, even the truth. New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan got at this the other day with a piece on “false balance.”)

Stewart is unique, and we’ll still have him for the rest of 2015. I’d like to think the Daily Show franchise is safe. Some of the names people were floating on social media Tuesday, such as Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, could prove to be worthy successors.

As for Williams, I can’t imagine anyone expects him to resume anchoring duties after such a severe punishment. Mostly likely negotiations on the terms of his departure are already under way. For all the talk about the network nightly news having slipped into obsolescence, it’s still the closest thing we have to a mass medium, watched by more than 20 million people. A new anchor will be named and life will go on as before, at least for a few more years. Someday, though, it will end. And the Brian Williams episode will be looked back on as a signal moment in its demise.

Why Brian Williams may not be able to come back

Even though it’s an anonymous quote, the ending of this New York magazine piece on Brian Williams by Gabriel Sherman shows why it will be hard — maybe impossible — for him to return:

As one insider put it today: “The lingering questions in the executive suite is if he stays, how does he ever sit down with Rand Paul or Chris Christie and say, ‘You said this two years ago, and you said this last week.’ How does he do that?”

He doesn’t. He can’t.

Update: And he won’t. NBC has suspended Williams for six months without pay. Such a harsh punishment is almost certainly a preliminary step toward a negotiated departure.

Can Brian Williams recover from his false Iraq tale?

Brian Williams. Photo via Wikipedia.
Brian Williams. Photo via Wikipedia.

Published previously at WGBHNews.org.

Update, 8:30 p.m. Williams, in his apology, conceded that the story he had been telling was false — that his helicopter was not fired on and landed safely. Yet the pilot of Williams’ helicopter is now offering an account that’s close enough to Williams’ original story that we might all be tempted to say “never mind.”

The mainstream press this morning is stepping gingerly around Brian Williams’ literally incredible mea culpa about (not) coming under fire in Iraq 12 years ago.

Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times reports that the NBC News anchor “apologized for mistakenly claiming” his helicopter had been shot down. The Washington Post — which, unlike the Times, plays it on page one — is more forthright in saying that Williams “conceded” his story was “false.” But reporter Paul Fahri goes to some lengths not to get ahead of developments.

Not that you can blame either news organization for its caution. Williams is a certified icon of broadcast journalism, and no doubt NBC will go to great lengths to protect him. If Williams is disgraced, so is the network’s news division. It would take years to recover. But what happens next is largely out of NBC’s and Williams’ hands.

As first reported Wednesday by the military news organization Stars and Stripes, Williams has said a military helicopter that was transporting him in Iraq was hit by rocket fire and forced down. Stars and Stripes reporter Travis J. Tritten writes: “Williams and his camera crew were actually aboard a Chinook in a formation that was about an hour behind the three helicopters that came under fire, according to crew member interviews.”

Yikes. Williams, in addressing viewers on Wednesday, called his version a “mistake,” adding: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

In a timeline for CNN put together by media reporter Brian Stelter, it appears that though Williams spoke and wrote about the incident with varying degrees of inaccuracy over the years, the first time he told a clearly false version was in 2013 on David Letterman’s show.

This looks like a serious lapse of ethical judgment on Williams’ part. I find it hard to believe it was an honest mistake. How can you believe that you were flying on a helicopter that came under fire when you actually were on one that landed safely an hour later?

And I need to emphasize this: It wasn’t just a personal tale that Williams embellished — it was journalism. After all, the essence of journalism, as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen puts it, is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Williams was there, we weren’t, and he gave us a false account.

Not everyone is being as cautious as the Times and the Post. Writing last night in the Baltimore Sun, David Zurawik began: “If credibility means anything to NBC News, Brian Williams will no longer be managing editor and anchor of the evening newscast by the end of the day Friday.”

My own sense is that it’s too early to say whether Williams could or even should lose his job over this — although, barring a major exculpatory revelation, it doesn’t look good. Regardless, we have certainly come a long way from the days when an anchorman, Walter Cronkite, could be called “the most trusted man in America.”

Whatever else happens, Williams has permanently forfeited any such claims for himself.

MSNBC’s news-opinion dilemma

It looks like the political cross-dressing act at MSNBC has reached its limit. According to Brian Stelter of the New York Times, talk-show hosts Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews will not anchor the cable network’s coverage of the upcoming debates or on election night, which should tone down the battle between NBC’s journalists and MSNBC’s opinionators.

I have quibbles about this, but overall I think it was the right move. Barack Obama has no bigger advocates in the mainstream media than Olbermann and Matthews, and it has looked strange all year to have serious journalists like Tom Brokaw, Brian Williams, Andrea Mitchell and, before his death, Tim Russert seeming to answer to them. Recently, it all boiled over on the air.

Olbermann and Matthews reportedly will continue to appear as analysts, while David Gregory will serve as the anchor. That’s all fine. My larger concern is that in addition to being moved out of the anchor slots, they will also be expected to tone down their opinions, lest they run afoul of the Republicans’ current war against the media. Olbermann was exactly right in his revulsion at Republican efforts to stamp their brand on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, even if it was unseemly for him to do it from the anchor desk.

The problem, of course, is that there are no such scruples about the dividing line between news and opinion at Fox News. Stelter, for instance, does not question the fiction that Bill O’Reilly is not allowed to anchor Fox’s convention coverage, a piece of information that would be a surprise to anyone tuning in between 8 and 9 p.m. the last two weeks. Fox’s signature news personality, Brit Hume, is a good journalist, but he also leans noticeably to the right.

MSNBC this year is experiencing the first semi-success of its benighted existence by loading up on liberal political talk shows. Today Rachel Maddow debuts at 9 p.m., extending that trend. I don’t know how long it can last, since the network is still firmly ensconced in last place. But as long as network executives can find a way to keep the journalists and the talkers from ripping each other’s throats out, MSNBC has become a refreshing alternative to Fox News.

I just hope it’s Williams and Brokaw who are driving the anchor-desk shift — and not Rick Davis and Steve Schmidt.

Bitterness and hate at MSNBC

Jon Stewart’s got some great clips (move it ahead to around 11:30) of the meltdown at MSNBC. It turns out that Rachel Maddow’s upbraiding of Pat Buchanan has been the least of it.

One other thing I saw late last night, following Joe Biden’s speech: Keith Olbermann asked Brian Williams a question about whether McCain might use his vice-presidential announcement to take away from Obama’s moment. Except that he asked his question following an elaborate set-up in which he said something to the effect that he didn’t want to put Williams in the awkward position of seeming partisan. Williams semi-acknowledged that some sort of conversation had taken place.

It seemed clear to me that Williams must have been complaining that he and other NBC journalists feels as though they’re getting sucked into the liberal talk-show atmosphere that has led to MSNBC’s rise in the ratings.

It also seems clear that Tim Russert was the only personality strong enough to keep all this backbiting from spilling over. Another reason to lament his passing.

By the way, it’s mainly MSNBC, but not only MSNBC. The other night on Fox News, Brit Hume took the crossover from Sean Hannity and said — I’m sure I’ve got this almost word for word — I’ve always wanted to be on “Hannity & Colmes,” if only for a moment. The contempt on Hume’s face was palpable.

Mirror, Mirror, not on my wall

I’m in New York, where I attended the Mirror Awards luncheon sponsored by Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. My weekly online column in The Guardian was up for an award in media commentary, but I lost to Joe Nocera of the New York Times.

Editor & Publisher has a thorough rundown on the proceedings here. The theme of the event, as you will see, was the life of Tim Russert, who had been scheduled to receive a lifetime achievement award. Brian Williams accepted on his behalf. One discordant note: the set-up video included a brief tribute from Dick Cheney, who infamously lied to Russert in September 2003. I do believe I heard some murmurs, a sign that I wasn’t the only one who thought including Cheney was inappropriate.

The event was held in the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, which was pretty cool. Hick that I am, I’d never even heard of the place until I was invited to attend. Good food, amazing view, even on an overcast day like today.

Brian Williams protects his friends

That’s not an accusation. NBC News anchor Brian Williams actually comes right out and says it in response to complaints that he’s been silent about a recent New York Times article regarding retired generals and other military officers who analyze the war in Iraq for NBC and other news organizations.

To recap briefly — these officers are working as well-compensated executives for military contractors, which are, in turn, highly dependent on the good graces of the White House and the Defense Department. And Bush administration officials have not been not shy about telling the officers what to say.

Here’s a chunk of what Williams writes on his blog:

I read the article with great interest. I’ve worked with two men since I’ve had this job — both retired, heavily-decorated U.S. Army four-star Generals — Wayne Downing and Barry McCaffrey. As I’m sure is obvious to even a casual viewer, I quickly entered into a close friendship with both men. I wish Wayne were alive today to respond to the article himself.

The “picking on the dead” motif is a nice touch, don’t you think? Anyway, Williams goes on to say that he’s seen no need to comment on the Times article because, in his view, the officers were “tough, honest critics of the U.S. military effort in Iraq.”

And you know what? Perhaps they were, at least sometimes. But the thing about conflicts of interest is that viewers have a right to know what associations commentators have regardless of what comes tumbling out of their mouths. What Williams seems to be saying is that there was no need for such disclosure in these two cases because, in his personal opinion, neither man was susceptible to being spun. Is that the standard at NBC News?

In Salon, Glenn Greenwald notes that both Downing and McCaffrey were founding members of something called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, headed by a slew of pro-war neocons such as Bill Kristol, Newt Gingrich and Richard Perle. According to Greenwald, this fact was never disclosed in Downing’s and McCaffrey’s numerous appearances on NBC. Here is a choice tidbit from the committee’s stated purpose:

The Committee for the Liberation of Iraq will engage in educational and advocacy efforts to mobilize domestic and international support for policies aimed at ending the aggression of Saddam Hussein and freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny.

You can call this idealism. But it makes laughable Williams’ assertion that his “friends” were independent. To make matters worse, Greenwald also documents the two officers’ ties to the military industry, making it clear that they could have lost a lot of money both for themselves and their employers if they had gone too far in their “tough, honest” analysis.

Recently I called the Times’ revelations “as sickening a media scandal as we have seen in our lifetime.” I was wrong. The larger scandal is that folks like Brian Williams, whom I’ve always considered to be a straight shooter, have been allowed to sweep this story under the rug.

Thanks to Media Nation reader M.T.S. for calling my attention to Greenwald’s piece.

Williams photo by David Shankbone, and republished here under a GNU Free Documentation License.