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It's hard to remain a reporter sitting in the anchor's chair

NBC should put Brian Williams back on the street as a reporter to regain credibility, says Jules Witcover.

There no doubt has been some unsympathetic chuckling from purveyors of print journalism -- the underpaid and unrecognized foot soldiers of the reporting trade -- at the fall from grace of Brian Williams, the "NBC Nightly News" anchorman. He has been suspended from the astronomically lucrative job of, as some would describe it, reading the news off a teleprompter.

Much of the attitude can be attributed to old-fashioned envy of his reported $10-million-a-year-paycheck, compared to the union scale of a few measly bucks earned in most print newsrooms. Or envy of the celebrity that goes with the job, making anchors stand out from the grubby crowd of dirty-fingernail scribblers at press conferences and campaign events.

Mr. Williams found himself in hot water by also cashing in his celebrity on the entertainment or infotainment circuit, doubling as a teller of war stories that turned out to have a bit too much elasticity to bear re-run scrutiny. 

The old caution not to "put it in writing" -- an unavoidable peril that is essential in the newspaper, magazine or book business -- has proved to apply as well to television journalism, in emoting before a camera. The replays of Mr. Williams's variations on his fired-on helicopter theme have been both embarrassing and devastating.

Like Mitt Romney's videotaped remark about "47 percent of Americans" that undid his 2012 presidential bid, Mr. Williams self-immolated in his high-riding anchor loft, at least temporarily. His repeated embellishments of crisis moments seemingly were borne of attempts to gild the lily of his already admired reporting from the field.

In the earlier days of radio and television reporting, two of the deservedly brightest CBS stars -- Edward R. Morrow in World War II and Walter Cronkite in Vietnam -- won distinction and credibility by sticking to straight reporting and analysis. Neither felt the need to pull rabbits out of hats for the audience.

One of my oldest friends who once sat in the NBC chair now vacated by Mr. Williams was the late John Chancellor. He occupied it five days a week, and then on weekends during presidential campaigns he would venture forth on his own time to see for himself. But he did so reluctantly, for one reason.

As easily recognized in the press pack by candidates and onlookers alike, it was impossible for him to blend in with the crowd, drawing autograph seekers even to the point of being recognized by candidates in mid-oration. Once in Los Angeles, a candidate brought heads swinging to the press claque by introducing him as "a living legend" and drawing applause. We print scribblers picked up the nickname and never let the unassuming Chancellor forget it.

He confided on one occasion that he hesitated to turn out for such public events because as an old print reporter for the City News Bureau in Chicago he had learned to stay out of the story. But his subsequent television celebrity had now made that nigh impossible.

Another time, during a primary in Maine, he stood in the back of a crowd listening to Gary Hart, when a bunch of young girls turned and rushed toward him, one shouting: "There he is! The guy on TV!" As he braced himself, however, they ran right by, to a local television anchor who was their adored target. We didn't let our nonplussed chum forget that, either.

Brian Williams is paying a high price for going out of his way to make himself part of the story. It would be a price too high to run him out of journalism after the good work he's done. But maybe putting him "back on the street" as a plain old reporter again, on television or otherwise, would be a good resolution for NBC News, and for him, for a while.

At least, that is, until the current unfortunate episode blows over, providing he would be willing to pay that price. He could well afford a considerable pay cut and a small dose of humility to restore his name and standing in the craft he has said he relishes and that has been so good to him.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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