WASHINGTON — As must-watch disseminators of news, the nation’s broadcast networks have proved once again they are pretty much in the entertainment business dedicated to putting business first and validity second.
That’s a fairly broad condemnation but one that certainly fits NBC’s decision to demote former anchor Brian Williams to its cable affiliate, MSNBC, rather than dismiss him altogether for lying about his achievements and experiences as a superstar correspondent and much glorified anchor man.
For Williams part, an apology for his sins was clearly less than that as he told Today host Matt Lauer about his dark side etc. etc., refusing to apply the “L” word to his dissembling about being under fire while covering a war zone and several other incidents turned up in the network’s six month investigation. He waited patiently while the NBC sleuths proved he was what he seemed to be, “untrustworthy” at least in the cases they found.
But rather than dismiss him outright — which has happened in the true world of journalism on numerous occasions when reporter prevarications have sullied the reputation of the employer and the industry — the television suits decided to send him to the minors apparently to cleanse his soul. That decision merely certified the belief that not all untrustworthiness is the same in their view. In other words, those appearing on cable apparently don’t have to be quite as honest as the anchor of nightly news is supposed to be.
When one is being paid $50 million over five years, he is expected to be as pure as Caesar’s wife. Now that he is to take a considerable cut in pay, it’s another story. By the way, “considerable” is relevant. It could well be still a heck of a lot of money. The network’s highly paid executives aren’t saying what he will receive for periodic pieces and even breaking news.
This entire business is ludicrous. These weren’t innocent mistakes made by a man with an ego problem and apparently a dark side. They were unabashed efforts by Williams to make himself more important and battle hardened than he was— “I was there,” kind of stuff.
He wanted to do what television today feels necessary to do to embellish their “this just in” image and bolster their star’s authenticity. It’s the promo game that finds an anchor hysterically overselling, telling everyone there is a forest fire or a tornado or a terrorist attack just outside your door that you should know about … with even more devastating news to come.
When the “startling” revelations finally come they often are far more anemic than hyped and frequently a rehash of a story 24 to 48 hours old — ancient by reporting standards these days — and merely an updated version with a minor or irrelevant fact that’s probably been out during the morning and afternoon cycles.
“Breaking news here,” followed by cat up a tree significance. You know, the “human interest” variety.
That’s the kind of dishonesty that Williams grew up in and, with his superstar status, obviously got away with … until he didn’t. Or has he still? After all he didn’t find himself in the end consigned to writing his memoirs, forced to live on the millions he already has made in his years in his nightly news spot, telling tall tales. One shouldn’t be concerned about from where his next meal will come.
The most honest result of NBC’s investigation would have been to either negotiate a settlement or send him on his way to another career because anyone who depends on cable news for information would have little choice but to consider themselves short-changed or to question nearly anything he says.
Is that harsh? Perhaps, but has anyone heard of Janet Cook lately? She was the Washington Post Pulitzer winner who was found to have fabricated her entire winning story about the systematic heroin addiction of a little boy by his parents. She became the poster girl for a number of those similarly infamous for managing brief fame by making up stories during the 90s and early 2000s, leaving us all feeling disgraced. All resulted in instantaneous firings.
It would be easy to say that Williams received a slap on the wrist. It was a bit more than that only because his standing with his colleagues and the public will never be the same. Maybe he’ll cry all the way to the bank.