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Weighing in on the curious case of Brian Williams


Embattled Anchor Brian Williams signs off on Friday’s NBC Nightly News. Could it have been his last one for the network? Photo: Ed Bark

@unclebarkycom on Twitter
The New York Post, which is to journalism what the Ebola virus is to healthy living, has been having a wonderful time with Brian Williams.

Friday’s front page “Lyin’ Brian” headline depicted the NBC anchor with a Pinocchio nose. On Sunday’s front page, the Post added “ANCHOR AWAY!” to its “Lyin’ Brian” tagline, depicting a panic-stricken Williams roped to an anchor and being yanked off ship.

Whether he lied, “conflated” or “misremembered,” Williams clearly finds himself in the worst spot of his career during a self-suspension of undetermined length that takes effect on Monday.

For years, Williams augmented his anchoring of the NBC Nightly News with laugh-seeking guest appearances on late night talk shows and a hosting stint on Saturday Night Live. Now it seems as if the whole world is laughing at his expense, with doctored photos depicting Williams as a key player in just about any major or trivial event.

Can he survive? Should he survive? Does his ever-changing story about coming under fire in 2003 while aboard a military Chinook helicopter over Iraq make him unfit to serve as the principal flag-bearer of NBC News? Or is Williams’ self-made mess, for which he rather weakly apologized on last Wednesday’s Nightly News, in reality more heinous than, say, the Post’s “Bag Men” headline and picture in the early aftermath of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing?

The two young men pictured in fact were completely innocent. But the Post didn’t suspend publication or even admit a mistake. The newspaper instead issued the standard-issue “stand by our story” response before quietly settling a resultant lawsuit out of court last fall. In other news, the Post also “conflated” the Boston Marathon death total, reporting 12 fatalities when in fact 5 had died. But when you’re the Post, who’s counting?

One of my points is this. Be careful what you wish for by hoisting Williams on a pike and in effect saying that just about anyone would be better in the Nightly News “chair.” It’s not always that easy.

What Williams did is by no means trivial. And if a pattern is found -- regarding his now under-scrutiny eyewitness reporting from New Orleans on Hurricane Katrina -- then indeed Williams must go. One can make a strong argument that he should be sacked anyway. But even some of the veterans directly involved in the 2003 incident are hesitant to brandish pitchforks.

On an excellent edition of Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources Sunday, the pilot who flew Williams, Chief Allen Kelly, told the host, ”If he made mistakes -- I mean, we’re all human. But I make no judgments on him in that regard.”

Stelter also interviewed Don Helus, who piloted the helicopter that actually was hit by enemy fire on the day in question. Helus was blunter in his criticism of Williams and an early critic of how the anchor at times was depicting those events.

“Well, we had a lot going on, but I am pretty sure he (Williams) was not in our flight at all,” Helus said at first before becoming more certain in his recollections.

Helus also told Stelter: “I try to keep an unbiased opinion on him (Williams). Granted, we have embellishers in the military. We have them in the civilian world that try to, I guess, tell a story of their war medals and, you know, their time in combat . . . I assume you as journalists have the same thing in yours. The fact is that Mr. Williams wasn’t in or near our aircraft at the time. It saddens me that you have so many other combat journalists out there that are in that type of situation . . . More than likely, they probably don’t tell the story like that, you know, with embellishment.”

As a former U.S. Marine, I don’t feel any more judgmental toward Williams than I would have without having served. Based on a number of first-hand experiences, I’ve found him to be open, serious, ethical and off-the-cuff amusing. During his 10 years as Nightly News anchor, he generally was applauded by TV critics as a solid journalist who also knew how to have fun and perhaps sometimes crossed the line in that respect. But now this happens, causing one to question whether Williams in fact has been something of a charlatan.

In announcing his self-imposed suspension to NBC News staffers, Williams said it has become “painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”

NBC News journeyman Lester Holt will fill in for Williams. Bluntly put, he lacks star quality and has presided over a Dateline program that itself is no great shakes in the journalism department. It’s best known for breathless, overcooked re-tellings of murder stories.

Others mentioned as possible heirs to Williams include Katie Couric and Matt Lauer.

Couric had her chance as anchor of the CBS Evening News, where she ran third before launching a syndicated afternoon talk program that also failed. Lauer’s journalistic credentials are marred by his long tenure on NBC’s Today show, which is produced by the news division but increasingly is largely a giggle-fest and promotional “platform” for NBC entertainment productions. Then again, Couric, and ABC’s Diane Sawyer and Charles Gibson also emerged from the early morning arena to helm their respective networks’ flagship evening newscasts.

Williams benefits from, until recently, being the least of NBC’s worries. His Nightly News still ranks No. 1 in total viewers while Today has fallen behind ABC’s equally goofy Good Morning America after more than a decade of ratings dominance. NBC has no up-and-coming logical successor in place should Williams be jettisoned.

While he dangles and awaits his fate, let’s also note that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has survived the worst public relations nightmare in the league’s history. So anything’s possible.

My overall feeling is that Williams should be given a second chance unless he’s proven to be a serial offender in terms of exaggerating what he saw or directly experienced. “Social media” and the likes of the New York Post are delightedly pounding away at the moment. But Williams’ piñata days will pass sooner rather than later.

People are asking, “How can we ever look at him in the same way again?” Ask David Letterman about that after his acknowledged affair with a Late Show intern during the time he was married to Regina Lasko and was the father of their young son. Ask Bill O’Reilly about his sexual harassment scandal, which was -- all together now -- settled quietly out of court. Ask Rosie O’Donnell about second chances, although she’s now blown another one by leaving The View -- again.

Brian Williams, should he return to the Nightly News, will have to make a far wider-ranging statement on “my actions.” As of this moment -- pending NBC’s internal inquiry -- I think he deserves that chance.

Email comments or questions to: unclebarky@verizon.net