NBC’s belated decision to suspend Brian Williams won’t go over well with the Queen of Hearts crowd, who’d rather lop off his head now and get the facts later. Nor will it sit well with friends who’ve tried to minimize the tarnished anchorman’s lies.
But it was the right call, one that takes Williams off the air, where he had become a liability, while the network’s investigation figures out what he actually did — and why he was able to get away with it for so long.
Even in the most optimistic interpretation, Williams seems in for a very rocky ride.
He has already admitted to one reputation-wrecking offense: repeatedly telling a false story, including on his nightly newscast recently, about being in a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire during the invasion of Iraq.
Williams’ original reporting was accurate, which separates him from a rogue’s gallery of lying journalists, including one at USA TODAY, who’ve been caught writing fiction. But news anchors, who are the symbol of their networks’ credibility, don’t get to lie about their work in any context, and Williams is further damaged by his assertion that he simply “conflated” events, which raises doubts about whether he grasps the significance of his mistake.
That transgression alone is enough to justify his six-month, unpaid suspension. But it fits a broader pattern running through the allegations against him: that he exaggerates his own role in events, after the fact.
His coverage of Hurricane Katrina is an example.
While in New Orleans, Williams never reported being at the Superdome when a man committed suicide, but later he claimed he was there. He also said that he saw a body floating down the street of the mostly dry French Quarter, which no one has confirmed, and that his hotel, the Ritz-Carlton, was overrun by gangs, which wasdisputed Wednesday by the hotel manager.
Maybe it all happened. Plenty of bodies were floating in New Orleans, and there were plenty of mobs. Or maybe Williams turned a dramatic backdrop into personal drama. That’s not easily done in live reporting by a network anchor surrounded by camera crews and producers, but subsequent “recollection” is less constrained.
Maybe Williams has even come to believe his own fiction — a common psychological twist, though one that would disqualify him as a network anchor.
None of this will be easy for NBC’s investigators to sort out. Trying to prove definitively that something didn’t happen is vastly more difficult than proving that something actually occurred, which is reason for the network’s probe not to be rushed or constrained.
NBC will also have to explain why Williams was able to lie about the helicopter incident, and potentially others, for so long before Iraq War veterans called him out.
His camera crew surely knew the truth. Producers, too. Did they speak up and get ignored? Or did they stand mute? Either way, NBC has a problem.
Williams, meanwhile, will have to live in limbo, like a suspect awaiting trial. That’s a humiliating tumble for a network star, but one that he brought on himself.
USA TODAY’s editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff. Most editorials are coupled with an opposing view — a unique USA TODAY feature.
— USA Today