NBC Nightly News recently suspended anchor Brian Williams for six months after an investigation, spurred by a story in Stars & Stripes, revealed that his account of being in a military helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire while reporting in Iraq in 2003 was inaccurate. Williams, who has recounted various versions of the story on and off the air since first reporting it, apologized for misleading the public before stepping aside—of his own accord—then being suspended by the network. The actions of both Williams and NBC have seeded a public dialogue about the perception of reporters who rise to celebrity status and the credibility of television news programs fighting for ratings and relevance.
A pair of Drexel faculty members, with lengthy backgrounds in reporting and producing television news, expressed their opinions about the handling of the Williams situation. Ronald Bishop, PhD, a professor of communication and interim head of the Department of Communication in the College of Arts & Sciences, is a former reporter and editor who studies the intersection of culture and media. Karen Curry, executive director of the Kal & Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies in the Westphal College, was a producer and executive at NBC and the chief of its London bureau where she directed the network’s coverage of Europe and the Middle East.
Does Williams’s “conflation of events” necessarily indicate a lack of credibility? In our 24-hour news cycle world, where news is given to errors, omissions and exaggerations —why is Williams’s error so egregious?
RB: The way news is currently gathered and delivered practically demands that Williams – and his colleagues at other news organizations – go down this road. Such are the perils of first-person reporting. What he said about his experiences in Iraq would have been shared 25 years ago over a couple of beers with a colleague or maybe at a party.
KC: The Williams “conflation of events” was not the result of the 24-hour news cycle at all. He did not make an error, as can often happen, when reporting breaking news. He wrote a piece for NBC Nightly News about an event that happened 12 years ago and that report contained untruths. He crossed a line that just could not be crossed. The shame of this is that he is a very good journalist whose career had brought him well-deserved status. This self-aggrandizement is baffling.
What does NBC’s handling of the situation tell us about how it views itself as a news organization?
RB: It is now expected of journalists, especially those at this level, and with this kind of prominence, that they actively participate in making the news more compelling – and that, unfortunately, includes becoming the story. So we have Anderson Cooper in his tight t-shirt crying about the victims of Katrina and so on.
KC: It is clear that NBC realizes its credibility as a news organization is at risk. Although some people feel Williams should have been fired, a six-month suspension without pay is a strong statement showing that NBC realizes its audience expects it to produce responsible journalism and, in this case, it failed its audience.
Does the pressure put on anchors to be extremely close to the news risk having them become part of the story?
RB: The pressure of having to feed the proverbial news cycle beast also is a factor. Tweets must be compiled, posts made, even if a story hasn’t advanced or new information hasn’t been added. Letting the public know that you’re on the case is now as important as the case itself.
KC: There are various risks involved with sending anchors to volatile locations. Having anchors in war zones is always risky because of the logistics involved in anchoring from the field, which makes the situation more difficult for everyone on the ground. However, the additional risk of having the anchor become part of the story is a two-edged sword. In many ways, the very reason to send him/her there is to insert the anchor into the story.
Television news is very personality driven and there is a strong belief that the success of the show hinges inordinately on the popularity and skill of the anchor. Having the main anchor on the scene is thought to be good for the “brand” but it also runs the risk of over-shadowing and, at times, distorting the story.
I think television news organizations, and we as the audience, should take a look at why we feel the need for these super-hero anchors. Originally, anchors did just that – they anchored the news broadcast from their desks in the studio, introducing reports from reporters around the country and the world. They were, in some respects, the traffic cops and guiding lights bringing the disparate parts of the broadcast together. Maybe we need to go back to that model and leave the field to the field reporters.
What does NBC need to do to win back the trust of its viewers?
RB: Whatever it does, it will do so publicly; it will continue to trot a contrite Williams out there. It may launch an internal review of news gathering policy, hold seminars, bring in experts, send out sternly worded memos. But the end product – the one that demands that Williams and the colleagues whose ranks he will join again someday be part of the story – won’t change. Devotion to journalistic principles went out the window the second broadcast journalism started making money for the networks. Now that devotion is just one more promotional tool.
KC: I think NBC needs to report this the way they would report any major story. The public needs to hear the facts and they need to hear from Brian Williams – not just in a scripted speech he or the company may construct, but in a penetrating, journalistic interview. Why not have a non-NBC journalist do an in depth interview with Williams – perhaps someone from the BBC – so as not to have a competing U.S. network journalist involved, for whom there could be some perceived conflicts of interest.
NBC is in uncharted territory right now, so why not take advantage of that to provide a refreshing look behind the curtain and at the same time provide a teaching moment for themselves and the entire journalistic community. This approach may not get Brian Williams his job back, but it might just give him a chance to get some respect back. As much as Americans love winners, they also love someone who finds the wherewithal to redeem himself.
Will Brian Williams ever sit in the NBC anchor chair again?
RB: My guess is that after his exile, he’ll come back and do a heart-rending mea culpa that will air in prime time. It’s funny: we as a society seem to have lost the capacity to give anyone a second chance – public firings happen so quickly these days – but when one is granted, it comes with conditions, chief among them that atonement be very public and very marketable. And with the public so confused about what exactly makes one a journalist and distrustful about so many of those who they know are journalists, they end up more focused on the spectacle produced by the misstep than by the misstep itself. And another chance for real systemic change – paradigm repair, to cite my academic colleagues – is lost.
KC: It seems unlikely, but if NBC takes bold action in transparently reporting its own story and Brian Williams is able to make a no-holds-barred accounting of what he did, the American embrace of a good redemption story might make the difference.
News media who are interested in speaking with Bishop should contact Alex McKechnie at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215-895-2705. Those interested in speaking with Curry should contact Britt Faulstick at email@example.com or 215-895-2617.