Can a leave of “the next few days” really mean a week, or a month — or a professional lifetime? We’re about to find out. But if you had to place money in Vegas, put your money on NBC’s beleaguered anchor Brian Willaism being off the anchor’s desk longer than he says. Because the fact is: the controversy swirling around his admission that he played really wasn’t on board that helicopter he said for years he was in when it was shot down over Iraq has not abated. In fact, reporters are pouring over comments he made about Hurricane Katrina and other assertions. Is the other well-shined, genuine leather shoe about to drop?
In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.
As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.
As I have noted before, Williams problem is NOT limited to Williams. Being truthful is one part of the problem — the problem now getting him in trouble. The other, bigger picture issue is how Williams and others who were once considered great, serious print or broadcast reporters reached a high level in broadcasting and let themselves be shaped by the snarky, relaxed, personality-obsessed media and political culture. They discarded the professional tone and seriousness they had in their old incarnations, walked into the big media blender and came out differently than the original ingredients we had seen before.
Williams is now under the old and mew media microscopes. He is facing a fact checking inquiry at NBC, the New York Times reports:
Scrambling to contain a crisis engulfing one of its most prominent on-air personalities, NBC will begin an internal investigation into Brian Williams, the embattled evening news anchor who has admitted he misled the public with a harrowing tale of a forced helicopter landing in Iraq.
The “fact-checking” inquiry, confirmed on Friday by several people in the network’s news division, will review not only the Iraq incident but also Mr. Williams’s reporting during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as well as any other issues that arise during the investigation.
Richard Esposito, the head of NBC’s investigative unit, will lead the inquiry. Mr. Esposito does not report to Mr. Williams, who holds the positions of both anchor and managing editor for “NBC Nightly News.”
In a staff memo on Friday, Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, said that the network had “a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired.”
“You are absolutely right and I was wrong,” wrote Brian Williams, the NBC news anchor.Brian Williams Admits He Wasn’t on Copter Shot Down in IraqFEB. 4, 2015
Ms. Turness said that she and Mr. Williams had spoken with the “Nightly News” team on Thursday and addressed more employees in an editorial meeting on Friday.
And, The Huffington Post reports, NBC is now faced with a question it didn’t think it’d have to face now: after Brian Williams, who?
NBC News was relatively slow to respond to the Williams revelations this week, which could be attributed to the network having no heir apparent for Williams, who just signed a five-year deal reportedly worth an annual $10 million. Williams is not only the face of the news division, but a bona fide network star nearly as well known for his comedic turns on NBC’s “30 Rock,” “Saturday Night Live” and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” as for his journalism career.
The network didn’t face this problem when it came to replacing Williams’ predecessor, the veteran anchor Tom Brokaw. By the late 1990s, everyone in the TV news industry assumed that Williams, a witty, telegenic MSNBC host and occasional “Nightly News” fill-in, would eventually take over for Brokaw. “I’ve been mentioned as being ‘groomed’ so many times, I feel like a toy poodle,” Williams said in a 1998 interview.
The slow succession allowed Williams to check off the boxes expected of a big-time anchor before officially taking the helm in 2004. He’d already served as White House correspondent in the ’90s, but needed foreign affairs chops before settling in behind the anchor desk. Williams’ trip to Iraq at the start of the 2003 U.S. invasion helped burnish his war correspondent credentials, but that same trip might now prove his undoing.
Some inside the network still believe Williams is too big to fail, given that his top-rated newscast is one of the only successes in a news division that’s seen both “Today” and “Meet the Press” knocked off their No. 1 perches in recent years. So the Williams decision is a critical one for NBC News President Deborah Turness — who hasn’t turned around the fortunes of the news division since she joined from British network ITV in 2013 — and for NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Patricia Fili-Krushel, a former Comcast executive with minimal news experience who now oversees both NBC News and the ratings-challenged MSNBC.
Another sign of the grave trouble he’s in: he was on the unflattering end of a column by the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd:
THIS was a bomb that had been ticking for a while.
NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.
But the caustic media big shots who once roamed the land were gone, and “there was no one around to pull his chain when he got too over-the-top,” as one NBC News reporter put it.
It seemed pathological because Williams already had the premier job, so why engage in résumé inflation?
She writes about the blend of show biz and news in recent years and ends with this:
With no pushback from the brass at NBC, Williams has spent years fervently “courting celebrity,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it, guest starring on “30 Rock,” slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon and regaling David Letterman with his faux heroics: “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.”
As his profession shrinks and softens, Williams felt compelled to try to steal the kind of glory that can only be earned the hard way.
If more instances come out about Williams not being accurate or being truth challenged, what he’ll earn is more contempt and scorn and it’ll be announced that he’s leaving his anchor job to do exciting special reporting projects for NBC that’ll either not materialize, or being done sparingly — and he’ll be gone.
If there’s a “developing” media story, this is it.
And on Twitter?
I'm shocked. Back when Brian Williams and I killed Osama Bin Laden, he seemed like an honest guy.
— Conan O'Brien (@ConanOBrien) February 7, 2015
Brian Williams taking a few days off…..to finish his SEALs training. #BrianWilliamsTimeOff
— Andrew Malcolm (@AHMalcolm) February 8, 2015
I predicted Rosie O'Donnell would fail at the View, and was right. Now I predict Rosie will take over for Brian Williams!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2015
— Sweet Soaps® (@SweetSoaps) February 7, 2015
BREAKING: Brian Williams to step aside temporarily, but not as long as he lied.
— Top Conservative Cat (@TeaPartyCat) February 7, 2015
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.