Brian Williams' fall reminds networks on cost of ignoring journalism

Tens of millions of dollars in play and networks are talking journalism?

Suddenly, there's money on the table in the world of network news — big money, tens of millions of dollars, waiting to be scooped up, thanks to the implosion of Brian Williams.

As a result, the genre usually defined by the metaphor of dinosaurs marching to their graves is now the site of one of the hottest media battles of the year, with all sorts of compelling storylines.

How far will ratings for "NBC Nightly News" sink from their top spot of 9 million-plus viewers now that Williams has been suspended for six months as anchor and managing editor of NBC News?

The newscast itself was rebranded last week by removing his name from the title. Given that, will he return? If he does, will he still be the object of derision that he is now in social media and elsewhere online?

And how will ABC and CBS, with smaller audiences of 8 million-plus and 7 million-plus, respectively, try to take advantage of the opening that appeared only days after Williams lied to viewers about being on a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq?

The stakes are so high and the fall of Williams so bloody and fresh that no one in the network newsrooms wanted to go on the record last week talking about strategies being devised to grab some of that money. But my phone was ringing off the hook with agents, newsroom executives and staffers wanting to tell me, off the record and on background, what hardworking, nonshow-biz journalists both ABC's David Muir and CBS' Scott Pelley are as anchors and managing editors.

The theme: Muir and Pelley are the anti-Brian Williams, the anchorman known the last couple of years more for "slow-jamming the news" with Jimmy Fallon than covering it responsibly for his viewers during the dinner hour. But even if it is pure spin, I am delighted to be hearing it, because it shows that one lesson the networks appear to be taking from the fall of Williams and NBC News is that good journalism is good business.

And that's big news, because it is the opposite of the direction so much of the media has been headed the past decade. The belief lately in too many news operations has been that good journalism simply costs too much money. So, let's spend what we have on cosmetics, marketing and social media in the hope that we can make it look as though we're doing real journalism without having to pay for the kind of talent and infrastructure it takes to actually do it.

Sure, there's self-selection in the kinds of calls I've been getting since Feb. 4, within an hour of writing on baltimoresun.com that if NBC cares one lick about its credibility, it should part ways with Williams by the end of the week. I have written extensively online pieces and gone on national TV shows to denounce Williams' lies and his abject journalistic failure as managing editor of the "NBC Nightly News."

Some still disagree about Williams. Their narrative is that he was a fine journalist who blew all that up with his self-aggrandizing lies that came to light in recent days.

But the fact is that, as managing editor of NBC News' flagship broadcast, Williams helped drive it into journalistic bankruptcy.

Exhibit A: NBC gives Williams a prime-time newsmagazine, and he hires Chelsea Clinton as a special correspondent at $600,000 a year. And he showcases her sorry work.

This sent a demoralizing message to the real journalists at NBC News, especially those in combat zones who were in real danger and getting paid far less than $600,000 a year. And this for someone without a bit of journalistic training or experience, who during her mother's 2008 presidential campaign refused to even talk to the media.

But there are many other examples, the most recent being an incorrect report on the "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" that the gunmen responsible for murdering 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo had been killed or were in custody when that was not yet the case.

Even after the "exclusive" report by Pete Williams was exposed as false by law enforcement authorities and other publications, it remained on the "Nightly News" website for more than an hour after the broadcast.

Brian Williams acknowledged the mistake on air Jan. 8 during the "NBC Nightly News," but if there was any blame suggested by his words, it was directed at the two anonymous "sources" Pete Williams based his report on — not NBC's news operation for going with their words.

But worse, "NBC Nightly News" made a similar mistake a year earlier with tweets about a mall shooting in Columbia and refused to even acknowledge it, despite my calling the network repeatedly in an effort to discuss it.

Everyone was scrambling on Jan. 25, 2014, for a motive after a gunman opened fire in the mall, killing two people and ultimately himself. Then, "NBC Nightly News" put out this tweet: "Latest: Shooting at mall in Columbia, Maryland was a domestic situation, federal law enforcement official tells NBC News — @PeteWilliamsNBC."

Only it wasn't domestic, investigations by various law enforcement agencies concluded. And the parents of one of the victims expressed the pain caused by NBC suggesting their daughter had any kind of relationship with the man who killed her.

That's abysmal journalism: publishing something that is dead wrong and causing pain to victims. But neither Pete nor Brian Williams nor any news executive would get on the phone with me to discuss it.

An NBC News spokeswoman told me that Pete Williams had moved on to other stories, and expressed puzzlement as to why I persisted in calling about the false information in the tweet. I decided then that "NBC Nightly News" under the leadership of Brian Williams had serious problems not only with verification but also with accountability — two of the hallmarks of sound journalism.

Now comes the reckoning, because Brian Williams lost his journalistic way and Comcast, which took control of NBC in 2011, never seemed to understand the responsibilities that came with owning a national news operation.

NBC made more than $200 million in 2013 with the "Nightly News" — $30 million more than ABC and $50 million more than CBS.

That's the kind of money that's now up for grabs in the nightly news race. Look for slick network promotions in coming weeks showcasing the journalistic bona fides of Muir and Pelley. These are not blue smoke and mirrors. Both have paid some dues as reporters.

I know Pelley better than Muir. I've been writing and talking to him since the mid-1980s when I was a TV and media columnist at the late Dallas Times Herald and he was a reporter at an affiliate there. I know he takes the journalistic component of his job and the tradition of the chair in which he sits seriously — far more seriously than Williams did.

Lester Holt, who is replacing Williams, also has solid journalistic credentials. But he's in a tough spot, having the job on what's being presented as a temporary basis — while at the helm of a rudderless news operation.

It's going to be a fascinating battle to watch. Do it through a journalistic lens. Because in the end, the fall of Brian Williams and the story of which network will rise to replace NBC as the leader in evening news is going to be more about journalism than anything else.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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