NBC News is now focusing its investigative lens on its own temporarily dropped anchor, Brian Williams. For the next six months, at least, the $10 million a year superstar of 30 Rock will be on an unpaid suspension assignment somewhere in NBC’s Elba.
The network’s investigative editor Richard Esposito is tasked with a veracity vetting to discover whether television’s top-rated news personality inadvertently “conflated” due to a “fog-of-war” (as he now says) — or just outright lied when he told repeated tales of being in a military helicopter that was ripped by enemy fire and shot down in Iraq in 2003.
Either way, this much is clear: Williams now knows what it means to be hit and shot down by incoming fire. Suddenly other tales he told after his fog-of-peace ordeal covering Hurricane Katrina’s devastation in New Orleans have blown in front of the eyes of his now-inquiring NBC bosses.
Such as his statements that he saw a body floating face-down along a flooded street outside his New Orleans Ritz Hotel; also that “We watched … all of us watched” as a man plunged four floors to his suicidal death inside the Superdome, a horrific sight others don’t recall seeing. He’s now being vetted about those, too. And still others are now belatedly swirling through the executive suites at Rockefeller Center.
But from the moment the first of these journalistically unacceptable transgressions hit the news a week ago, I’ve been waiting for someone — anyone — at NBC or another news competitor (for example, CNN’s Reliable Sources) to raise questions that should require NBC News to try using a mirror as its investigative lens — so it can take a hard look at itself, its principles, practices and some of its other knowledgeable personnel.
Namely: In the cases of Williams’ false tales, are there people at NBC News who are guilty of committing professionally convenient look-the-other-wayism?
Let me explain:
Williams wasn’t alone in that military helicopter in Iraq in 2003. An entire NBC News team — producer, cameraperson, maybe others — were with him. And when Williams later changed his story to say his bird was the one ripped by enemy fire, other NBC News employees should have known immediately that was flat-out false. Especially when he told those untruths in the spotlights of a Madison Square Garden event and David Letterman’s CBS show. Also, a full NBC News team was with him during Katrina — and should have done more than wince in silence if he made false claims.
So: Did they ever report to superiors that Williams was misreporting or maybe lying?
If so, what did their superior say or do? If not, what do his bosses now think their employees should have done as a matter of journalistic integrity?
It is always sad when we see a journalist who felt compelled to distort or deceive just to inflate his or her image. It’s worse than sad when we see it done by one of our news icons.
Back before our news biz morphed into infotainment, or even non-news show biz — a morphing pushed by corporate cost-center priorities — television anchors such as Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite were picked and judged by priorities of journalism and expertise, not ratings, blogs and buzz.
Sadly, Brian Williams always seemed like a colleague who had it all. But apparently he never thought he had enough.
When I heard one venue for Williams’ chopper whopper was that ceremony at Madison Square Garden, I thought about yet another event at that fabled sports palace — a show biz event: Frank Sinatra’s famous concert, which was billed as “The Main Event.” To add over-the-top hype promoters had sports-talker Howard Cosell do a grand intro, as a powerful jazz big band swung in the background. And Cosell, who was always in rare form, whipped things to a frenzy by shouting out names of attending show biz celebrities — including one non-showbiz icon: “WALTER CRONKITE — MISTER BELIEVABLE!”
Once we thought that tagline was also a perfect fit for Brian Williams. Now we know (and he knows) it never was. And never will be.