NBC and Williams: Too Little, Too Secret

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By Virgil Scudder

So Brian Williams has been tried, convicted, and sentenced in the court of NBC News. A trial lawyer seeking a tolerant jury could hardly have done better in terms of the best venue for his client.

After an internal investigation of their highly-successful evening news anchor, the network decided to suspend him for six months without pay after revelations that he falsely claimed to have been in a helicopter

in Iraq in 2002 that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. It turned out that he was in a chopper that arrived at the landing scene an hour later.

The problem with getting caught in a lie or deception is that it leads people to look more closely at other instances in which it might have occurred. Close scrutiny is now being applied to Williams’s reporting from New Orleans during the Katrina crisis. His claim of having seen a body float past his hotel room has been disputed by hotel officials and others who claim there was only six to eight inches of water on the street and thus much too little for a body to float in.

Like so many news organizations, NBC has shown itself to be excellent in reporting on someone else’s crisis but bumbling in terms of handling its own.

NBC did not provide any details about what its investigation turned up. That leaves many unanswered questions about the quality and honesty of Williams’s reporting over the years. Also, were others at NBC aware that his story was false? If so, are they being punished?

Self-aggrandizement is not uncommon among news anchors and others who suddenly find themselves in star status, glorified by a celebrity-worshipping public. Success can swell the head and, sometimes, shrink the brain, squeezing out good judgment and common sense.

Tellingly, there has been practically no support from other key figures in the news media. That says a lot.

What happens after six months? Does Brian Williams return as evening news anchor or in some lesser position? Is some atonement or contrition on his part an element of the decision that let him stay with the network? Why did the network turn a blind eye to reports of his deception over the years? Troops who were in that Iraq convoy had complained about his false account for many years. NBC has left too many questions unanswered for the story to quickly die down. As a result, its credibility remains besmirched.

Social media played a key role in bringing down this highly-successful newscaster. Perhaps we should revise the old truism that “the pen is mightier than the sword” to read “the pen and the Internet are mightier than the sword.”

For anyone who would presume to lie, mislead, deceive, or simply embellish a story, there is an important lesson here. Little brother is watching. And posting and tweeting.

Beware the keyboard!