Brian Williams is in a world of shit right now. That’s blunt, but it’s the truth. He spent the past 12 years telling a story about being in a helicopter what was hit by RPG fire over Iraq with the only problem being that the story doesn’t seem to have been true. What’s more, now that he’s been called out as an apparent fabulist by the military newspaper Stars and Stripes — with a new report landing today in which Army flight crews say that Williams’s chopper wasn’t anywhere near the ones that were fired upon — outlets and internet sleuths have begun going back to point out how the details of his story often shifted throughout the years, with apparent embellishment piled on top of apparent embellishment.
Williams’s apology and explanation for his actions don’t just leave a lot to be desired, they’re positively laughable, with the longtime NBC News anchor saying the “fog of memory” caused him to make a mistake. While there are, actually, ways your mind can trick you into believing things that aren’t real in times of emotional stress — right up to thinking something happened to you that in fact happened to someone else — it’s tough for the average person to swallow this reasoning. It’s almost impossible to buy that Williams really did believe he was in a chopper that was hit by a rocket when it absolutely wasn’t. You get shot down, you remember it. It sounds like bullshit and whether it is or isn’t is not especially important when public perception is what matters.
As expected, there’s now a lot of talk floating around about how there’s no way Williams survives this, as well as outright calls for him to resign or for NBC to fire him. Longtime Baltimore Sun media critic David Zurawik writes, “If credibility means anything to NBC News, Brian Williams will no longer be managing editor and anchor of the evening newscast by the end of the day Friday.” Meanwhile Rem Rieder at USA Todaycalls the controversy “an unmitigated disaster for Brian Williams and NBC” and says, “It’s hard to see how Williams gets past this, and how he survives as the face of NBC News.”
It is indeed hard to see — if you expect that today’s corporate news organizations, particularly NBC, will behave the way they did years ago. It would’ve been hard to see Williams getting past this in the 1970s. Now? It’s a breeze to see it. If Williams chooses to resign because on a deeply personal level he feels that his credibility is permanently damaged, then that will be the end of it. But NBC News isn’t going to put pressure on him to leave. He’s simply too valuable a commodity, even slightly tarnished. NBC, maybe more than any other network, cynically understands that bad press blows over, especially in the era of ephemeral social media fascinations. NBC won’t even consider getting rid of Williams unless the public speaks and he falls hard from his place at the top of the ratings. And again, given how likable Williams is that’s just not likely to happen. He might have to take a leave of absence. He may have to do a round of interviews where he offers a mea culpa that doesn’t sound entirely full of shit, but he’s not going anywhere unless he — or the viewers — decide he is.
NBC News just doesn’t worry about issues like credibility in the traditional sense — not anymore. Credibility these days isn’t something that comes from within a journalist and is then projected outward; it’s bestowed upon him or her by the audience. If people are watching, that means you’re credible. If you’re making money for the network, you’re trustworthy. Your value isn’t in how honest and forthright you actually are, it’s only in how the viewers perceive you. Williams is appealing enough that people will want to believe him, which means he can come back from this if he handles it right. This is a completely cynical way of looking at how television operates and in a different, more honorable era in media, Williams might be looking down the barrel of a pink slip right now. But this is how it is now.
It’s important to note that just this afternoon, the pilot of the chopper Brian Williams was on in Iraq in 2003 corroborated at least part of his story to CNN. Rich Krell says Williams’s Chinook did take fire but that it wasn’t hit by an RPG; he also offers an explanation as to why the pilots and crew ahead may not have realized Williams was near them, rather than being somewhere far away as some are claiming. Krell says of Williams, “Some of things he’s said are not true. But some of the things they’re saying against him are not true either.” While Williams’s own rush to apologize may be interpreted as an admission of guilt, it’s not unreasonable that a journalist would immediately try to take the blame in an effort to regain his credibility and that Williams — who has a reputation for being a stand-up guy — would try to make amends to anyone who’d repeated his faulty story.
When you first hear that somebody said they were under fire in Iraq and had to make a rough landing, but it turns out it happened to another helicopter they weren’t even in, it sounds like a flat out lie. It’s easy to hop on board the #BrianWilliamsMisremembers meme and imagine him saying, “I want to apologize for stating that I was in a chopper in Iraq in 2003. Actually, I made a mistake and it turns out I was sitting in traffic on the Jersey Turnpike outside of Bayonne.” Adversaries of the “establishment media” are already jumping all over this thing and they very well may push to get Williams fired or to force his resignation. But if there’s even a hint of a legitimate and mitigating explanation for the mix-up or a thimble full of exculpation here, not just NBC but a good portion of Nightly News‘s audience will probably use it to justify sticking by Williams.
But even without any of that, there’s almost no way NBC is going to force Brian Williams out. He’s simply too valuable an asset to them and he’d likely be too big a threat if he left and went to the competition. He’ll almost certainly repair his reputation one way or the other. Better they reap the benefit of that than another network.
Besides people will forget. They always do. And if they don’t and the ratings reflect it? Then that’s when NBC will know what it has to do.
Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.