It’s been a rough couple of weeks if you’re NBC Nightly News’ managing editor and anchor.
Brian Williams is currently being suspended by NBC while an investigation is underway regarding his recent journalistic shortcomings.
If you haven’t been following the news, Williams recently paid tribute to a veteran who ensured the safety of himself and his NBC news team after the helicopter they were in was allegedly damaged by a rocket-propelled-grenade. Â It was a great story, except for the fact that it wasn’t true.
While Williams and his crew were in a group of military helicopters that took fire, the aircraft Williams was in was unharmed.
In March of 2003, when NBC Nightly News was still anchored by Tom Brokaw, Williams reported the incident on air from Kuwait City. Â “We learned the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky,” Williams said.
Over time however, his story changed. Â A decade later Williams appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and told a slightly different rendering. Â “We were north of the invasion,” Williams said, adding a new detail to the story. Â “We were the northern-most Americans in Iraq.”
While that may have been true, the next part he told Letterman was not. Â “Two of our four helicopters were hit,” he said. “Including the one I was in.”
Then earlier this month, after reporting the story of he and the man who was responsible for his safety, Tim Terpak, Williams apologized on air for making a mistake in his reporting. Â “I said I was travelling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire,” he said. Â “I was instead in a following aircraft.”
NBC has now launched an investigation on the Iraq story as well as some of Williams’ reporting during Hurricane Katrina, and he won’t be at the anchor desk for at least the next six months.
The question many people are asking is why Williams felt the need to embellish his story. Â His story was perilous as it was; he was in the air with helicopters that were taking fire, and he was grounded with those helicopters in the desert for two days in a sandstorm.
Williams’ position as the anchor for the most-watched newscast in television in this situation is both a blessing and a curse. Â He enjoys celebrity status, appearing on late night talk shows, and even has a semi-regular installment on The Tonight Show in Jimmy Fallon’s “Brian Williams Raps” segment. Â But with that celebrity status comes criticism and scrutiny. Â Since his suspension, Williams has become the subject of jokes and multiple memes depicting him claiming to have been, among other things, in the X-Wing fighter that blew up the Death Star.
Is this really fair though? After all, politicians tell half-truths all the time and Fox News airs more corrections than anybody. Â Certainly Fox’s reporting that there were Muslim “no-go zones” in Europe is worse than Williams changing his story a little.
NBC could be making a huge mistake with all of this. Â One glance at anything NBC News posts on its Facebook page is met by hundreds of viewers saying they “refuse to watch until Brian Williams is back,” some even saying they are watching the news on other networks until Williams returns.
You can’t blame NBC for wanting to get to the bottom of this, but if they value their ratings at all, they should tread carefully. Â Their viewers appear willing to forgive Williams, so maybe the best solution is for NBC to do the same.