Onscreen, the transition at NBC News from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams has been a great success, with favorable reviews and strong ratings. But just one week into his new job as anchorman and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, Williams is under fire for a statement he made that groups that represent minority journalists say minimizes the need for newsroom diversity.
The National Association of Black Journalists, saying it is "dismayed" by Williams' remarks, is scheduled to meet today in New York with NBC News President Neal Shapiro and other network officials to discuss the matter, according to leaders of the organization.
"We are looking to see whether or not what Brian Williams said initially permeates from the managing editor and anchor seat of NBC Nightly News down through the network," Herbert Lowe, president of the group, said yesterday.
Allison Gollust, a spokeswoman for NBC News, confirmed today's meeting, but characterized it as a general discussion of diversity issues, rather than a conversation about Williams' remarks.
"This is not about Brian Williams, and he won't be at the meeting," Gollust said.
William's controversial statement was made during an interview published in the November issue of Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. It came in response to a questioner saying, "There are few women and people of color in top jobs at news organizations. How do you address that lack of diversity?"
"We have bigger problems," Williams is quoted as replying. "There are no black members of the U.S. Senate. We should keep some perspective on this. Nevertheless, I am constantly interested to hear of examples in our coverage where viewers think we got it wrong in one way or another because of a skewed viewpoint."
(The interview in which Williams made the comment was conducted in August - three months before African-American candidate Barack Obama was elected to the Senate.)
The remark has been a hot topic online since Dec. 1, when blogger Robert Redding Jr., posted it on Reddingnewsreviews.com., his Web log targeted to "black news readers." Redding says he read Williams' remarks while on a flight.
"I thought, 'We need to do something about this. It shows that just because people are getting older and replaced, it doesn't mean attitudes are changing,'" Redding said yesterday.
Ernest Sotomayer, president of Unity: Journalists of Color Inc., said he sent a letter to Williams this week expressing his "disappointment and concern" about the remarks, but had not received a reply as of last night.
"He is the new face of NBC News, and I said that I am hoping this [statement] does not reflect viewpoints of executives at the network," Sotomayer said.
Williams issued a statement to members of the NABJ on Thursday seeking to clarify his remarks in the magazine.
"It is clear that my response to a question posed by an in-flight magazine back in August has been misconstrued. I believe that the lack of diversity is a serious challenge not only in newsrooms across America, but across the upper echelons of our society as well. In no way have I ever diminished the problem that exists in our newsrooms. Racial and gender-based 'glass ceilings' exist in virtually every corner of our society. We have an obligation to face this issue head-on in our newsroom every day. There is an astounding amount of work before us, which is why I am pleased that Neal Shapiro will continue that dialogue with NABJ in coming days, and I support his continued efforts to make this a priority at NBC News."
Lowe said the NABJ will enter the meeting "with an open mind," hoping to be convinced that NBC is committed to diversity.
"We are hoping that we can be assured - from Brian Williams, to Neal Shapiro, to everyone else - that when key decisions are made, the perspectives shared by our membership and our community are factored into those decisions," Lowe said.