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Should NBC Have Fired Brian Williams?

Published: Jun 22, 2015

Lord knows I've lied, and chances are I've conflated, but I'm still finding it very difficult to find any sympathy for newsman Brian Williams, or for his employer, NBC/MSNBC. Williams, after a six month suspension from his job for, according to him, "conflating" his part in certain news stories, was ousted from his NBC Nightly News anchor position but given a breaking news correspondent post at MSNBC; he'll also be able to fill in for his anchor replacement, Lester Holt, at NBC when needed.

While Williams was away from his job the past few months, it was my assumption that he was supposed to be doing something close to soul searching, but instead, if his interview with Matt Lauer on the Today show last Friday is any indication, he was doing nothing more than catching up on his daughter's work on HBO's Girls. Which is to say, Williams' so-called apology seemed very weak; one PR expert called it a "non-apology apology."

In the interview, Williams didn't use the word lie. He chalked up his conflations to "ego" and a "sloppy choice of words." And, like a seasoned politician, Williams avoided addressing the several items he conflated when pressed by Lauer to speak about them. And Lauer knew there were several because NBC, upon announcing Williams' return, said that in addition to that main conflation about Williams' helicopter never coming under fire, Williams conflated his part in other news stories as well. However, according to NBC, he didn't conflate while reading the nightly news off a monitor but while singing and telling jokes on various talk shows. And so these conflations weren't that bad. Or so NBC seemed to imply.

Which all leads me to believe that Williams' attorneys and perhaps NBC's attorneys had more than a little to do with this reassignment plan to MSNBC as well as with Williams' scripted apology.

Although I wasn't losing any sleep over Williams' conflations (I'd forgotten all about his conflations and suspension until NBC's announcement last Thursday), I was very interested in NBC's ultimate decision. Would the network fire one of its top employees for lying/conflating? How would it judge the fabrications of one of its top employees (who is in the business of reporting facts): as a minor or a major indiscretion?

I'd assumed (it seemed very likely to an almost sure thing to me) that NBC would ultimately let Williams go. After all, he was in the news business and he was manipulating the news. And what he did didn't seem all that different to me than what former New Republic journalist Stephen Glass did (Glass's indiscretions were at the center of the very good movie Shattered Glass). Or what the former New York Times journalist Jayson Blair did (Blair plagiarized and fabricated and, as a result, was fired; and then, as you do in America, he wrote a memoir about it).

I think, at the very least, I was hoping for a serious apology, that is, for Williams to own up to the lies/conflations, to tell us really why he conflated. And I can only assume I was not alone. When the whole Conflate-gate went down this past winter, a majority of Americans, according to various polls, had thought Williams should be fired, and so they must have wanted, as I did, some sort of an explanation for his conflations other than "it came from clearly a bad place, a bad urge inside of me." Instead, it seemed like Williams was being attorney-coached during his Today interview.

As for NBC's reason behind the reassignment, it seems safe to assume that NBC's decision to keep Williams on its staff had to with these three reasons: 1) money, 2) money, and 3) money.

That is, it is very probable that 1) According to NBC's attorneys, it was going to be a huge me$$ if they tried to fire Williams (a lawsuit could've been brought against NBC, and a long bad-for-publicity one at that), 2) Bringing Williams back in a role at MSNBC could in fact increase viewership at MSNBC (the only thing Americans love more than a public embarrassment by a celebrity is an attempt at a comeback after a public embarrassment by a celebrity), and 3) Williams would've likely found gainful employment elsewhere if NBC had canned him, and so then NBC would have to compete for the rubberneckers' views.

As for those aforementioned Americans (myself included), perhaps we're also complicit.

This past weekend, I returned to a column that the late, great Times journalist David Carr wrote about Williams' conflations. It happened to be one of the last columns Carr wrote before he died, and these two paragraphs (the last two in the column) jumped out at me and seemed worth including here:

We want our anchors to be both good at reading the news and also pretending to be in the middle of it. That’s why, when the forces of man or Mother Nature whip up chaos, both broadcast and cable news outlets are compelled to ship the whole heaving apparatus to far-flung parts of the globe, with an anchor as the flag bearer.
We want our anchors to be everywhere, to be impossibly famous, globe-trotting, hilarious, down-to-earth, and above all, trustworthy. It’s a job description that no one can match.

So, what do you think? Should Williams have been fired? Should he have been allowed to keep his anchor post? Did NBC respond to this situation prudently? Am I throwing stones from inside a glass house? Should we forget about Williams and instead focus on Lester Holt, the first African-American to anchor the nightly news? Let me know in the comments below.

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