NBC News: Credibility Versus Commerce

images courtesy of NBC News; Fotalia

NBC News: Credibility Versus Commerce
| published February 10, 2015 |

By Thursday Review editors

About 16 minutes into Monday night’s broadcast of NBC Nightly News, substitute anchor Lester Holt reminded those viewers who have been out of the loop for the last few weeks that the news show’s top man, Brian Williams, would be out temporarily while NBC determines how to handle certain aspects of its internal investigation. That probe is looking into the now troubling possibility that Williams, the full-time anchor and managing editor for a decade, may have embellished or exaggerated certain stories and reports.

By Tuesday night, the damage had become so catastrophic that NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke said that Williams would be suspended for at least six months without pay. Burke met with Williams and others earlier on Tuesday, and by nightfall the announcement was official. Lester Holt will serve as anchor until Williams returns in late July. NBC News president Deborah Turness communicated the decision to NBC employees about 20 minutes after Tuesday's airing of The Nightly News.

At issue have been Williams’ apparently false recollections of a reporting trip to Iraq in 2003, in which he has recounted—many times over the years—that a helicopter he was being transported in was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, presumably fired from the ground. The helicopter was forced to land in a rendezvous area with another Chinook chopper. There, Williams mingled with soldiers and Marines until a rescue extraction could be arranged.

The problem is that according to most military personnel there at the time, the chopper which Williams was travelling in was not struck by RPG fire, though it did rendezvous with the disabled craft a short time later (accounts vary, but the interval was either as short as five minutes or as long as 20 minutes). Williams has repeated the anecdote several times over the years to NBC staff, and to talk show hosts. He repeated the same basic story three weeks ago in a tribute to the brave men and women who fought in Iraq, and that’s when things began to unravel as military personnel who were part of the incident began to report on social media that Williams was not present when the ground fire incident occurred.

As the controversy escalated, Williams apologized on-air to viewers, explaining that his memories of the high-stress incident were clouded and apparently false. But the storm continued to grow—not only among military veterans resentful of a civilian’s false claims of a harrowing battlefield experience—but also among Williams’ many peers in journalism. Days later, he apologized to the entire NBC News division for causing them professional embarrassment, and for damaging NBC’s otherwise better-than-average track record of accurate and reliable reporting.

But by the end of the week, it became mutually beneficial for Williams to take a leave of absence. He told NBC staffers that he had become too much a part of the story, and that until things were sorted out, he would take a hiatus from his familiar anchor desk. He described his absence as temporary even as two schools of thought seemed to take shape—he would be back in a couple of weeks after a period of sufficient isolation and an adequate show of remorse; or, we would likely never see Brian Williams again on NBC News.

But the debate became larger and more problematic for NBC News, which is owned by NBC Universal, in turn a large part of the mega-communications giant Comcast. Lines have been drawn between those who see Williams’ identity as so crucial to the brand image of NBC News—which has enjoyed strong, reliable ratings over the last decade—and those who say that Williams should be fired, or at least banished from his role as anchor and managing editor. That Williams admits he has embellished the Iraq anecdote is entirely acceptable, some say; the only real question is his punishment and the future of NBC News’ reliability and fairness.  Burke said today that Williams' six month suspension was harsh, but also fair under the circumstances.

There are parallels easily drawn to the now infamous departure of Dan Rather from CBS News more than a decade ago. In that incident, Rather and his team at CBS chose to air a politically volatile story about a major presidential candidate (George W. Bush), a story which was built upon unreliable information, foggy sources, and which produced a completed piece which may or may not have been true, and, as it turns out, could not be backed up with any documentation, evidence or tangible material. Rather’s culpability in the incident became a flashpoint in the unfortunately widening gap in the news wars—a battle which included conservatives on the one hand, who were for decades suspicious of mainstream media organizations for their apparently liberal slant on the news, and on the other hand, defenders of journalistic integrity, some of who said that Rather and others at CBS were fired not because the story was false or unprovable, but because the reporters had challenged power in an age when advertising wags the dog of the big entertainment companies.

CBS had faced this kind of crisis once before in the 1990s when producer Lowell Bergman tested the limits of CBS News “independence” with his high-stakes investigative piece into Big Tobacco. Using former top executive and tobacco chemist Jeffrey Wigand as his primary source and whistleblower, Bergman and 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace explored the behind-the-scenes processes of an industry which at the time made spurious claims about the safety of cigarettes (i.e., that they, the companies, knew nothing about anything addictive or harmful in cigarettes). Bergman was right, and his reporting was on-the-money, but it tested the resolve of a news division in the face of legal concerns and commercial pressures, and the inevitable leverage wielded by advertisers.

For others, Williams has reignited—inadvertently perhaps—a controversy which has dogged presumed-Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for several years: claims which she made about having to duck bullets and dodge sniper fire after a harrowing landing at an airport in war-torn Bosnia. She, too, later conceded that she had embellished the incident; no snipers were firing, no bullets whizzed past her helmet or her vest. In fact, she didn’t even wear a helmet that day, and folks at the airport were walking calmly and peacefully to greet her. Republicans may gain mileage from this incident between now and 2016, and it will be up to voters to sort out whether her false memories are sufficient cause to vote for someone else.

But the dynamics found within the journalism community can be even more complex, especially when it is weighed against corporate demands of ratings and profitability. NBC’s Nightly News has been the network news division’s brightest star, easily retaining viewers even as its other news shows have suffered or been buffeted by change. And Brian Williams has been a part of the strength of that show, outshining his closest rivals—ABC’s Diane Sawyer, now David Muir; CBS’s Katie Couric, now Scott Pelley—and gaining something that every network has for decades dreamed of obtaining, a personality who cuts easily and gracefully across generational lines.

NBC Universal clearly wants to give itself opportunity to bring Williams back to the news—perhaps six months offers a sufficient period of self-reflection and short-term exile, after which, accompanied by all the usual displays of regret and contrition—in an attempt to retain viewers and ratings. In a world without Williams, the future of NBC’s news seems foggy and uncertain, at best, and the search for a replacement—assuming that the number two guy Lester Holt passes on the job—could be complex and arduous, not to mention costly as television viewers migrate to CBS, ABC, CNN or Fox News (which many may do during the six month suspension). At this point it is not clear whether NBC’s parent company, Comcast, weighed-in on the controversy.  The brass at the Comcast Tower in Philadelphia likely communicated its desire that the problem to go away, quickly. Risk-averse and allergic to nasty controversy, Comcast execs may prefer to endure the relatively manageable cost of losing Williams for six months to the long-term complications of a news division suffering from credibility issues.

The ratings have already seen a slight shift: by last Friday, Williams’ last night on the air, NBC's Nightly News had dropped a bit, falling behind ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir. Ratings experts and numbers wonks say this may mean little, if anything, since ratings can shift almost on a daily basis, and NBC and ABC have been battling for months for control of the number one spot, with NBC winning, on average, about 600,000 more viewers. CBS News generally ranks third.

Within NBC, an internal investigation is shaping up to be larger than originally thought, especially as reporters and editors look more closely at some of Williams’ past claims. Williams, who has appeared on shows hosted by Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon, is fond of retelling some of his more harrowing experiences in the field. NBC is looking into concerns, some of which have been raised quietly in the past, that Williams has embellished or exaggerated other anecdotes from his decades of work with NBC News.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Brian Williams: A Brief Hiatus from NBC News; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 8, 2015.

Williams Under Fire (A Different Kind of Fire); Thursday Review; February 7, 2015.