Will America ever trust Brian Williams and his employer, NBC News, ever again?
NBC, trying to play the role of King Solomon, announced late Tuesday that it had suspended Williams without pay for six months. NBC hoped to quiet or even end the furor surrounding reports that Williams had inflated circumstances surrounding his wartime coverage in Iraq. As if that wasn’t shameful enough on its own, people have started questioning his accounts of when he reported on the effects of the Katrina disaster and other events.
As media circuses are wont to do in the Twitter age, the Williams melodrama quickly got completely out of hand. If he wasn’t getting excoriated by serious media critics, he seemed to be getting ridiculed by homemade pundits on social media outlets (no, Twitter followers, I can assure you that Brian was not a survivor of the Titanic).
So, Williams is forced into exile for six months by the suits, who have the job of caring more about advertising revenue and demographics and viewer ratings than Williams. It’s a hard world, especially when you find yourself on the outside looking in, after basking in success and adulation.
Another cold hard fact: Williams is no longer even the main story. He’ll sit at home and clip coupons, read news websites and marvel over his collection of Bruce Springsteen bootleg CDs (full disclosure: a few of which I gave him after I interviewed him in August 2010).
Now, the spotlights shifts squarely on NBC News. The ratings for Williams’ Nightly News show have already started to drop. Perhaps this was predictable. Williams fans will turn away when he isn’t on the tube and skeptics will boycott NBC in protest over Williams’ actions.
NBC can tread water with the highly capable fill-in anchor, Lester Holt, until Williams returns from Elba. Then what? Will viewers forgive and forget? It’s unlikely. How can they? The public turns on Williams’ show — instead of the network and cable competition– because they trust him.
The news stories are largely the same every night, in practically the same running order, no less. So what it comes down to is who we like and trust the most. Williams has earned our respect, night after night, in the big chair. He reeks of sincerity without seeming stuffy. He knows by now how to strike the correct tone whether he has to discuss a deadly train wreck in a New York suburb or a grisly ISIS development or a heartwarming tale of heroism in Iraq.
When you step back from Twitter and think hard about this fiasco, questions, but not answers, come easily. Why did Williams seemingly habitually fabricate (or lie) about his deeds? What did he feel he had to prove? He had the top job at NBC. He had the highest TV ratings of anyone in the business. He was widely admired by peers and the public. Why couldn’t he just relax and enjoy it all without throwing away his reputation?
I’ve been writing for a few years that Williams needed to focus on his anchor position and stop appearing as in less dignified comedic roles (why, oh why, did he have to go on the Spike TV roast of Don Rickles?). I had been thinking that such foolishness detracted from his brand.
I was being shortsighted. These acts also appeared to give Williams a false sense of security and made him think he could wear the two hats at the same time. He couldn’t. He tried too hard to look like a cut-rate Seth Meyers. Williams desperately wanted to be accepted in the entertainment industry, as if conquering the news world was either just not enough for his ego or old hat — been there, done that.
The future doesn’t look good for Williams or his employer.
NBC is in a tough spot. Williams put it there. Can he eventually lift the network back to peace and quiet and ratings success?
Speaking as a news consumer, I don’t know if I can trust Williams again. My reasoning has more to do with logic than animosity. This is the way I see it: If Williams deceived me in good times, what is to say he won’t do the same sort of thing under duress?
America is said to love a comeback. This one would be one for the books.