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The hammer comes down on Brian Williams

11 Feb

by Rem Rieder

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams has been suspended for six months without pay. The suspension comes just a week after he apologized for “misremembering” a military incident while reporting overseas. VPC

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NBC News had to do something to stanch the bleeding.

The Brian Williams situation was getting worse and worse, with a steady media pounding for the embattled anchor and new suggestions of past misdeeds surfacing daily, some seemingly serious, some seemingly sketchy.

And so it did, suspending Williams without pay for six months Tuesday night. That’s quite a hit, and quite a humiliation for a journalist at the top of his profession.

But this may well not be the end of the story. In announcing Williams’ punishment, NBC News President Deborah Turness noted that the investigation of the anchor was ongoing. And she said, somewhat ominously, that the investigation was wider than the incident that triggered the scandal: Williams’ now-recanted story about being in a helicopter in Iraq that had been hit by enemy fire and forced down.

“While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003,” Turness wrote in a statement. “It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.”

Truer words have rarely been spoken than that last line.

And here’s where Williams’ future risks lie. She went on, “In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.”

Questions have been raised about Williams talking about his experiences covering Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and while working in the Middle East. In the former, his accounts of seeing a body floating in the French Quarter, which saw little flooding, and encountering menacing gangs in his hotel have been challenged. In the latter, Williams changed his account from having rockets fly in front of his chopper to directly beneath it while covering Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006.

One of the discouraging things about this episode is the way people who know better, including a number of Williams’ fellow anchors, have minimized what Williams had done while heaping praise on his character. It’s one thing to be loyal to friends and colleagues. But an anchor simply can’t play fast and loose with the truth, whether on the newscast or on Letterman. An anchor’s primary job, by far, is communicating honestly with the public.

Tough, maybe, but as an anchor you simply are held to a very high standard.

I’m glad that NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke sees the situation more clearly. “By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News,” Burke said. “His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”

Burke went on to say that Williams deserves a “second chance.” That’s an assessment about which reasonable people can disagree.

But the future depends on where the investigation headed by Richard Esposito, head of NBC’s investigative team, goes. Not to mention the digging by other news outlets that the chopper incident set in motion. If this was an isolated incident, that’s one thing. If there is a pattern, game over.

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