Brian Williams: A Brief Hiatus From NBC News?

NBC at the RNC

Brian Williams and David Gregory, flanked by Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell
at the Republican National Convention, 2012;
photo by Alan Clanton.

Brian Williams: A Brief Hiatus From NBC News?
| published February 8, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

Network news anchorpersons are often not merely the face of the news, as Americans generally understand it, but often the most identifiable aspect of a television network’s identity. Decades ago, TV viewers of certain generations saw the faces of the newscasters each evening and made what amounted to a brand-connection, forming loyalties based on the personality, evenhandedness, and trustworthiness of that person sitting at the anchor desk.

Walter Cronkite was CBS News, just as David Brinkley and Chet Huntley were NBC. Over the decades, other faces became inescapably linked to the strength of each networks brand, and to the reliability of its ratings: ABC News had Peter Jennings, and later Diane Sawyer; CBS had Dan Rather, and later Bob Scheiffer, Katie Couric, and now Scott Pelley; CNN had Bernard Shaw, later Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper; Fox News has Shepard Smith, Bret Baier, and Brit Hume. NBC had Tom Brokaw, arguably the most balanced and likeable of the post-Cronkite generation of news anchors, and upon his retirement from full-time news editing and reporting in 2004, he was replaced with the man widely-regarded as the best of the next generation of anchors—Brian Williams.

In the aught years, Brian Williams became the face of NBC News, and the identifying force of the network’s Nightly News. His easy manner, even-handed delivery, and likeable—at times self-effacing tone—made him an immediate star, and over that period (as CBS News struggled mightily to regain its footing in the post Rather-era), he took NBC to the top of the news wars. He made it look easy, but more importantly, he made it look reliable and trustworthy. His style cut across the generational lines, meaning his delivery of the day’s news had appeal to folks in their 80s as well as viewers in their early 30s. And that meant that he was a valuable asset for NBC Universal.

But over the last few weeks Williams has watched as his place at NBC has become clouded and unclear. This weekend he issued an internal statement saying he would take a hiatus from the Nightly News, presumably for several days, while NBC sorts out the growing crisis it now faces over statements oft-repeated by Williams regarding a reporting venture to Iraq more than a decade ago, before he became anchor.

Williams has previously told people that on that trip, a helicopter in which he and others were being transported was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), forcing the chopper to land while a back-up craft could be dispatched to rescue those on the ground. Over time, Williams has apparently repeated the anecdote with varying degrees of embellishment or detail. But weeks ago, military personnel who were part of that mission say that no such RPG attack on Williams’ chopper ever took place. The actual RPG attack was on a Chinook helicopter travelling a few minutes ahead of Williams’ flight, and it was the crew of that second chopper which landed on the ground near the location of the first helicopter.

Last week, amidst a flurry of controversy over what really happened, Williams delivered an on-air apology for his fuzzy memories of the incident. His colorful exaggerations of the event were the product, he said, of his desire to applaud those brave men and women who had been a part of that harrowing experience. Later that week, Williams also issued an apology to the entire news division at NBC, expressing regret that the brouhaha had caused damage to the credibility of the Nightly News.

But the problems have grown exponentially for Williams in the last two weeks. Many have begun to call into question other aspects of his reporting, including his famous 2005 and 2005 remarks about watching as dead bodies floated by in the heavy floodwaters of New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The veracity of that claim has been called into question in the past. Though law enforcement officials have confirmed that there were one or two confirmed incidents of bodies being found floating in heavily flooded areas, no such flooding took place in the area of New Orleans where Williams and his crew were staying, not far from the French Quarter. In fact, detailed rescue and emergency services logs, and exhaustive post-Katrina reports, have since said there was very little standing or flowing water in the streets around the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where Williams reportedly saw the dead bodies.

For NBC News, the problem of Williams’ reliability becomes an immense challenge. His temporary absence will give NBC time to manage its own internal investigation into the facts surrounding how Williams told and retold the events in Iraq. Though NBC has not commented publicly whether it intends to keep Williams as anchor, its network executives have sought to get ahead of the problem by selecting Richard Esposito—formerly with the New York Daily News, New York Newsday, and ABC News—to serve as the point-man on finding the facts. Ultimately, the outcome of Esposito’s probe into Grenade-Gate may determine the fate of Williams, whose Nightly News ratings are among the most reliable of any of NBC’s TV programs, and a source of joy for a news division which otherwise struggles with its Today Show and Dateline NBC, each of which draw ratings ranging from fair-to-middling, to low.

Some media analysts and media watchdog groups have said a short hiatus is a good idea, of for no other reason than to demonstrate to the public that NBC demands of its news team honesty and faithfulness to truth, as well as the network’s commitment to transparency. A five day or ten day absence would be tolerable, with Lester Holt sitting in as temporary replacement until William could return. If Esposito’s internal probe fails to produce any further damaging information, NBC might be able to bring Williams back, complete with appropriate statements of contrition and remorse, and loyal viewers of the Nightly News might forgive and forget. If, however, Williams’ hiatus remains prolonged, his ability to return—at least to his role as managing editor and anchor—might quickly sour with both viewers and his colleagues at NBC News.

As of Saturday, Williams seemed confident that he would return to his desk within a few days. Lester Holt, already the regular weekend anchor at NBC News, is the designated pitch-hitter many nights when Williams is on vacation, travelling, or at some other event. On Saturday night, Holt read in its entirety Williams statement to his colleagues, but Holt did not elaborate on whether Williams would be back in days or weeks.

Also at issue: intervention by NBC Universal’s parent company, Philadelphia-based Comcast, which has so far not weighed-in on the matter one way or the other. Media analysts are divided on the possibility of direct action by Comcast. Some suggest that Comcast’s financially diverse business model insulates it from any severe financial repercussions from Williams’ departure, or retention. On the other hand, others suggest that Comcast’s long track record of risk-aversion means top executives at the parent company may prefer for the matter to go away quickly, and with the least fanfare in the headlines.

Either way, the future for Brian Williams at NBC is now clouded, and only time will tell whether he will return to that coveted glass and chrome anchor desk at Rockefeller Center. And if he returns, will the news-consuming public find him as trustworthy and reliable as they did a month ago.

Related Thursday Review articles:

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

Comcast: Don’t Worry, Be Happy; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; April 9, 2014.