Out of all of the things I have read and written and said myself on radio, TV and video about Brian Williams the past five days, the one phrase that keeps rattling around in my head is Williams saying on Saturday, “As managing editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days.”
At first, I thought I would leave it to the psychiatrists to explain if bifurcating your identity that way said something about the size and health of an ego under fire — the fire Williams now faces as a result of telling a self-aggrandizing lie about being in a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2003.
Then, I thought it was an awkward attempt by Williams to act like he was still in control of his fate at NBC News.
But I have come to think that the phrase is also stuck in my head because the dual title he holds cuts to some of the core issues in the nightmare of credibility that he and NBC News now face.
I know it has been merely an honorific for some network anchorpersons, like Katie Couric, and they have left running the newsrooms to others. But if the managing editor half of the title represents the journalistic demands of the job, while the anchorman part speaks to the celebrity aspect of sitting at an anchor desk, Williams has failed at the former, while focusing most of his energy on the latter. And it seems a little too late for him to be trying to wrap himself in the mantle of journalism now.
Williams has been an awful news executive for my money. I could list a dozen examples, but I will limit myself here to one: hiring Chelsea Clinton as a special correspondent at $600,000 a year for his prime-time newsmagazine, “Rock Center” and showcasing her sorry work.
I wrote and spoke multiple times about the awful message this sent to the real journalists at NBC News, especially those in combat zones who were ducking real bullets and getting paid far less than $600,000 a year. And this for someone without a lick of journalistic training or experience, who during her mother’s 2008 campaign refused to even talk to the press.
But the person who hired Clinton and chatted with her on the set like her work was worthy of prime-time treatment wasn’t thinking like a news executive, he was acting like someone who thought it was OK to give a coveted job to someone without credentials who was part of the elite one percent at a time when young people who had worked their way through schools and served internships couldn’t get jobs. This was someone who loved the celebrity part of his job too much, in my opinion.
I don’t believe Williams is too big to fail as some of my colleagues do. I know NBC would love for Williams to survive this nightmare for tens of millions of reasons. For reasons, read dollars.
But the damage is done. I have written about how I cannot imagine anyone connected to or part of a military family not having contempt for Williams after the way he tried to steal some of the honor of real combat veterans for himself with his lies.
That's one audience I think NBC will lose if he remains anchor.
I also think baby boomers, because of their parents’ sacrifices and lifetime scars from World War II, were raised in a culture where lying about your performance in battle or in terms of military service is seen as reprehensible.
So, Williams might suffer with that audience, too, one that still remembers when the word “honor” was built on deeds — not on the yuk-yuk couch of a talk-show set.
But the most dangerous damage comes with young adults who are seeing Williams mocked mercilessly in social media with images of him in Zelig-like poses at events ranging from Gettysburg to Iwo Jima.
Living in the midst of an epic media revolution, these young adults don’t know, or probably care, about Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite or Peter Jennings. They don’t know how far Williams has fallen below the standard that those broadcast journalists, and others, tried to set for TV news. They probably don’t know any of the names of the foreign correspondents who were killed or seriously injured trying to bring Americans information from around the globe.
But these young adults do know the NBC anchorman is now a joke on their iPhones and laptops and tablets, and that can’t be good for demographics today or the future ratings and credibility of NBC News.
If Williams does somehow survive, and given the tumultuous media times in which we now live anything is possible, NBC needs to strip him of the managing editor title. He has betrayed the journalistic commitment to truth that role demands. And I believe being managing editor of a network's newscast — still the largest daily news audience on TV — is one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism.
NBC needs to do it publicly and bring in a journalist of the highest character to get that newsroom back on track. The network should make it abundantly clear that the new managing editor will rule the newsroom and run the budget on the “Nightly News.” She or he — not Williams — will determine what stories get covered, how they are played and who gets airtime.
If Williams stays, he should be the good-looking guy in the suit who reads the news and nothing else. This will give him lots of time to pal around with his celebrity friends and sit on the couches of late-night hosts when he isn’t making up stories about his journalistic derring-do.