Brian Williams: Trustworthy or Throwaway

Tyler Leahy
Opinions Editor

 

 

 

leahyThe opinions on Brian Williams’ mishaps have flooded columns all week, and I suppose it’s something worth chiming in on. Before all of last week’s headlines, it was hard not to love Williams.

Charismatic, confident, and thought to be credible, Williams became the most recognizable face in American broadcast journalism as Tom Brokaw’s replacement on NBC Nightly News.

In large part, Williams drew in 9.3 million viewers a night with his brand of broadcasting. While the show was already reputable, his presence was an immense part of its continued success.  Williams proved to be so likeable that his previous aspirations to be a late-night television host are not surprising. His frequent guest appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Tonight Show only showcased his sharp persona more as he let down his journalistic guard.

After doctoring up a story about being struck by a rocket-propelled grenade during a helicopter ride in Iraq, Williams finds himself at the onset of a six-month suspension from NBC Nightly News. While he witnessed a helicopter get fired at, his helicopter was unscathed.

NBC has launched an investigation on Williams’ actions, also examining his field coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Some castigate the Iraq War fib as a journalistic travesty. Others say it is nothing more than a bit of P.K. Subban-style embellishment. We all exaggerate stories that we are involved in, some say. It’s human nature. When we’re caught embellishing, we get a slap on the wrist and move on.

Others believe Williams, who may never read from a primetime teleprompter again, deserves a second chance regardless.

I’m not ready to jump to the conclusion that he deserves a second chance, although I did find him to be one of the more commanding figures in all of television. I don’t want to assume that a six-month suspension will mean a permanent ban, either as likely as it is. I will defend NBC for sinking into an unabashed panic mode, however.

In the fluctuating media landscape, consumption is dispersed in the direction of innumerable fragmented news outlets and platforms. Any schmuck with a Wi-Fi connection can break a story today, and some of these schmucks really aren’t schmucks after all. Everyone can get their news palate without a newspaper subscription or cable hookup. So why don’t the guys getting paid the most to deliver the news still throw their own curveballs here and there?

When television news is at its all-time low, NBC has no choice but to pull the “we-have-more-integrity-than-that” card. Williams and NBC Nightly News were more immune to slapstick attacks by Stephen Colbert and the now-retiring Jon Stewart, than the programs of competitors CNN and Fox News.

Regardless of political leanings, NBC was respected as perhaps the most authentic cable news heavyweight. The public didn’t expect any narrative spin on the news from NBC, especially their beloved front man Brian Williams.

This is why NBC is rightfully in panic mode. The real journalists, especially the big dogs, rely on civilians trusting their integrity to have a successful career. When the most popular journalist in the country breaks that ideal, he’s going to take enough heat to melt all of the snowbanks outside 30 Rockefeller Center.

In an era when any citizen can be a pseudo-journalist, the profession cannot afford for perhaps their most charismatic, most trusted figure to rift the trust between journalists and the American people.

Williams was as universally trusted as a 21st century news managing editor can be, and while the subject matter is much different, the blind trust we had in him draws as much shock as the collapse of Bill Cosby over the last several months.

In a struggling industry, no one is too big to collapse. Not even the seemingly untouchable Brian Williams.

He’ll likely never get that chance again. Perhaps Williams’ natural knack to be as much of a showman as a journalistic proved to be his tragic flaw.

As columnists around the country throw it out as an absurd joke, perhaps it isn’t that absurd after all.  With Colbert set to replace David Letterman on Late Show, perhaps if Williams still wants his shot at late-night television his most viable possibility comes as an heir to Stewart on The Daily Show.

Extremely unlikely, yes—but Williams has proven his entertainment value. He will never be the face at the forefront of broadcast journalism again, yet has a proven fan base.

Probably because of their reaction, NBC’s Nightly News ratings have been stable. As likeable as Williams is, Lester Holt is a worthwhile anchor too.

If Williams is willing to let go of his career as a hard news journalist, he will get another chance to be on television someday. Williams has that kind of star power. He will be able to display his most prominent traits as a charismatic entertainer.

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