NBC and Brian Williams: Thinking About All the Unanswered Questions

March 2, 2015

[james berglie/zuma wire]
[james berglie/zuma wire]

The court of NBC News tried, convicted and sentenced Brian Williams. A trial lawyer seeking a tolerant jury couldn’t have done much better in terms of getting the best venue for his client.

After an internal investigation of its highly successful evening news anchor, on Feb. 9, the network decided to suspend Williams for six months without pay, due to revelations that he falsely claimed he was in a helicopter in Iraq in 2002 that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. It turned out that he was in a chopper that arrived at the landing scene an hour later.

The problem with deception or being caught in a lie is that it leads people to look more closely at other instances in which the same offense might have occurred. People are now scrutinizing Williams’ reporting from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2004. Hotel officials and others have disputed his claim that he saw a body float past his hotel room; they said there were only six to eight inches of water on the street.

As with so many news organizations, NBC has done an excellent job of reporting on someone else’s crisis, but bumbles when handling its own.

NBC did not provide any details about what its investigation revealed. This leaves many unanswered questions about the quality and honesty of Williams’ reporting throughout the years. Also, were others at NBC aware that his story was false? If so, then are they being punished?

Self-aggrandizement isn’t uncommon among news anchors and others who suddenly find themselves glorified by a celebrity-worshipping public. Success can swell one’s head, and sometimes shrink the brain, squeezing out good judgment and common sense.

Other key figures in the news media have not offered much support. That says a lot. 

What happens after six months? Does Brian Williams return as the evening news anchor or in some less-prestigious position? If he exhibits some atonement or contrition, then will that play a role if NBC decides to let him stay with the network?

Why did NBC turn a blind eye to reports of Williams’ deception over the years? Troops who were in the Iraq convoy had complained about his false account for many years. NBC has left too many questions unanswered for the story to quickly die down. As a result, its credibility remains besmirched.

Social media played a key role in bringing Williams down. Perhaps we should revise the old truism that “the pen is mightier than the sword” to read “the pen and the Internet are mightier than the sword.”

Virgil Scudder
Virgil Scudder is the author of “World Class Communication: How Great CEOs Win With the Public, Shareholders, Employees, and the Media,” which received an Award of Distinction as one of the best business books of 2012. Email: virgil@virgilscudder.com.

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