When NBC Nightly News anchor/Managing Editor Brian Williams semi-apologized Feb. 6 for fabricating (not his words) an anecdote about his helicopter coming under fire in Iraq, and banished himself from his ratings-winning evening news broadcast for an unspecified few days, it certainly did not seem like his employer was in charge of the rapidly devolving situation. Well, no more.
Tonight NBC banished Williams to Liar Island for six months without pay—which means that this tireless man of the people will forfeit $5 million in salary. Buzzfeed has the memo from NBC News President Deborah Turness. Excerpt:
While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian's position.
In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.
As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.
NBCUniversal Steve Burke added that "Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate." It's a pretty vigorous slap of that news division's most valuable asset. Given that NBC's internal investigation is "ongoing," I think it's safe to assume that the 2003 helicopter saga will not be the only turd found in that particular punchbowl. Meanwhile, Lester Holt (who's good!) will continue pinch-anchoring.
In related media news that's burning up the Twitter, Jon Stewart announced late this afternoon he's leaving Comedy Central's The Daily Show this year. Leading to the question: Are the two stories related??? Actually, they are, at least a bit. Read on about the outgoing Jersey boys, their collaborative moments in Williams's downfall, and how this story had the unlikely outcome of putting Stewart, Bill O'Reilly, and David Brooks on the same page.
Williams has been a frequent guest on The Daily Show, trotting out the kind of faux-humility and alleged comic stylings that made him the most successful personality in the nightly news business. (I have never been a fan, but people speak highly about these skills, and he got numbers until now.) One of Williams's shaggy-dog stories currently getting scrutiny, regarding a 2006 helicopter ride over Israel, received embellishment in Stewart's chair. The two gentlemen also genially discussed another now-doubted story—about Williams being held up at gunpoint while selling Christmas trees as a teenager in Red Bank, New Jersey—at a local event in 2012.
So last night, a visibly conflicted Stewart gave Williams an extended noogie for his transgressions (making some shrewd points about the difference between news-delivery and bar-bullshitting), and then pivoted to the hypocrisy of journalists giving Williams the kind of scrutiny they failed to apply to Dick Cheney 12 years ago:
Stewart's "yes, but" analysis, which drew mixed reviews, mirrored similar comments from the likes of Michael Moore and Bill Moyers. Other news celebrities coming to Williams's qualified defense include Dan Rather, Joe Scarborough, Dan Abrams, Joe Klein, and Fox News ratings monster Bill O'Reilly. Like many of the above, O'Reilly is particularly upset with you, the rabble, with all your gleeful schadenfreuding on the Interwebs:
"Every public person in this country is a target," he said. "With the Internet — you know what it is, it's a sewer. And these people delight in seeing famous people being taken apart. I just think it's wrong. I mean, we're human beings just like everybody else."
Bolding mine, out of mad respect for the Elephant Man reference.
New York Times columnist David Brooks agrees with The Factor, describing the public response to Williams as "barbaric." Former CNN host Piers Morgan decries the "brutal slaughterhouse of social media," with its "ferocious critics" who "want to see his bones removed, sawn into pieces and hurled into the Hudson river." Well.
If I was a seven-figure teleprompter reader (note that I do not disparage that skill!) able to command $40,000+ speaking fees and luxurious real estate on The New York Times bestseller list, I, too, might look upon the Internet's looming swarms of potential career-killers with a special kind of loathing. As indeed Brian Williams himself did back in 2007.
But the story here is actually quite simpler: The guy lied about stuff, in a gross kind of way, on his broadcast, and also while promoting his show in other fora. Social media's biggest role here, aside from giving some knowledgeable veterans a place to challenge the original helicopter story, was to let NBC and Williams know that people were laughing at them. If you're going to dine out on the ersatz populism, do not expect my tears when the crowd turns on your fraudulent work.