Don’t look now, but the latest installment of "Dumb and Dumber" just came out on the small screen. Only this time, we have to add "Dumbest."
Dumb: The only way to describe NBC evening news anchor Brian Williams, who lied on God knows how many stories in his "storied" career, including the now infamous "recollection" of how his helicopter was forced down in Iraq by enemy fire. In fact, no such thing occurred.
Dumber: His ridiculous non-apology for committing the mortal sin of journalism, and thinking that taking himself off the air for a few days will make everything OK.
Dumbest: NBC, for A.) allowing Williams himself to issue the statement saying he, as anchor and managing editor, had made the leave-of-absence decision, and B.) for not jumping in front of the story by immediately firing Williams.
The questionable behavior of both parties couldn’t be scripted any better if it were a soap opera.
But it’s not. It’s real life, and the damage, not just to NBC and Williams, but the entire media, is growing by the day.
Last night, NBC announced Williams was being suspended for six months without pay.
Let’s break down this controversy, free of the ever-present psycho-babble so many use to explain such things:
1.) Question: Why did Williams lie? Answer: Who cares? Totally irrelevant. If he wants to talk about his "mistake in recalling the events" — a convenient, smartly wordsmithed way of saying he lied — perhaps he should see a shrink. But such an egregious error has no place in journalism, especially for one who sits behind a national anchor desk.
2.) The magnitude of this firestorm is partly of our own making. Clearly, lying is never acceptable in the media, from the cub reporter to a seasoned anchor. But this is such a huge story because, somewhere along the way, we transformed national television journalists into mega-celebrities with 10-figure salaries, people who just as often "become the news" as much as they report it.
3.) Perception is reality. And since the growing perception is that Williams cannot be trusted, he must go, for that type of trust can never — ever — be regained. Williams can certainly be successful in another line of work, and has as much right to be forgiven as anyone. But the fact remains that in journalism, credibility isn’t an important thing, it’s the only thing.
Williams is now suffering the snowball effect. So long as he is still officially an anchor, every story that he has ever filed is fair game for its veracity. More and more reports are calling into question Williams’ ability to tell the truth, from being in an Israeli helicopter where he claimed enemy rockets were flying below him, to seeing floating bodies and contracting dysentery while covering Hurricane Katrina.
Is Williams a pathological liar or part-time deceiver? Or was the Iraq helicopter story a one-and-done deal? Who knows? But the digging and additional accusations — true or not — won’t cease until NBC does what it should have done on Day One.
4.) Williams didn’t embellish the story. He made it up. Getting hit by enemy fire is something that would literally be burned into your memory forever, such as witnessing your child’s birth or knowing exactly where you were on 9/11. To say you were hit, when you weren’t remotely close to taking fire, is total fabrication.
So why hasn’t NBC pulled the plug and said, "Anchor aweigh?" It owes nothing to Williams, since he broke his end of the bargain. Keeping him in limbo is getting the network the worst of both worlds: The digging will continue, more negative stories reflecting on the network will surface, and they will end up cutting ties anyway. So why wait?
This isn’t a court of law where innocent until proven guilty applies; it is the court of public opinion, on which rests hundreds of millions in advertising money. And since Williams has already admitted fault, giving him his walking papers would not be a raw deal.
The network also made a colossal mistake in allowing Williams to take himself off the air. Doing so implied that he was in charge — the fox guarding the henhouse — answering to no one. Now, many questions are being raised on how effectively the network is managed, which can only lead to more trouble — the last thing it needs while trying to fix its broken image. Crisis management experts, the NBC executives are not.
Bottom line: If Williams is permanently removed, there is no reason to keep digging through his past. Problem solved. NBC should cut its losses. Immediately.
6.) How can anyone, especially Williams’ media colleagues, defend him, as some have, claiming this whole episode is being blown out of proportion? And that firing him would be a punishment that doesn’t fit the crime?
Prior to this firestorm, the media’s credibility was already impugned. Keeping Williams in the anchor seat is destroying whatever integrity remains. There is a time to circle the wagons when a friend is in trouble, but this isn’t it. The best advice anyone could give Williams would be to step down now, on his terms before they fire him, and try to salvage whatever dignity he has left.
And incredibly, many of Williams’ apologists are invoking a perceived double-standard, where politicians can lie but reporters can’t, asking if it’s right to hold journalists to a higher standard.
If you’re in the media, and you actually ask that question with a straight face, you need to find another profession. Enough said.
We should give Brian Williams the benefit of the doubt that he is sorry. But if he truly respects the anchor desk, NBC News, and most important, the integrity of journalism itself, he should do the right thing and make himself, and this story, go away.
Loyalty above all. Except Honor.
(Note: NBC Tuesday night suspended Williams for six months.)
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column appears every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].