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Why Brian Williams Lost His Job, and Why He Has a New One

4 minute read

Brian Williams lost his job as anchor of the NBC Nightly News for perpetuating one fiction, and for failing to perpetuate another.

The first fiction you’re probably familiar with. Last winter, Williams was caught for having repeated a tall tale about his experiences embedded with U.S. troops on a helicopter in the 2003 Iraq War. NBC removed him from the newscast and conducted an internal investigation; according to the announcement, the network found other (unspecified) examples of Williams’ “inaccurate statements,” most of them not on NBC News but “on late-night programs and during public appearances.”

The second fiction, connected to the first, is built into the evening news format itself: that a news anchor is reporting you the news, rather than reading it to you. Williams’ lies were a failure of character or memory or both. But they weren’t evidence that he was going to sit behind the desk and concoct Onion-like stories about the Iran nuclear talks. The vast NBC News division sends out reporters, produces a product and gives it to an anchor to present to you, like the headwaiter at a restaurant.

That’s not to diminish anchors: you have to work your way into those jobs, and they usually come with significant managing-editor responsibilities. But it’s not as if there are many opportunities for Williams’ weird personal mythmaking to make their way into the newscast on a regular basis–it would actually be a bigger concern if he were still out in the field reporting. Objectively, there was less reason to trust Brian Williams as a person, but practically, there was no real reason to trust NBC’s news any more or less.

See Brian Williams Through The Years

Brian Williams Senior Year 1977Mater Dei High School, New Monmouth, NJAs the Editorial Editor for the school newspaperCredit: Seth Poppel/Yearbook Library
Brian Williams was the Editorial Editor for his school newspaper seen here on the far right during his Senior Year at Mater Dei High School in New Monmouth, N.J. in 1977.Seth Poppel—Yearbook Library
From Left: Brian Williams, President George W. Bush and AP writer Glenn Johnson talk aboard Bush's campaign plane in Florence S.C. on Feb. 17, 2000.Reuters
From Left: Brian Williams poses with NBC Anchor Tom Brokaw in New York City prior to Brokaw's last broadcast on Dec. 1, 2004. Richard Drew—AP
Brian Williams during a break in the "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams" show in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Dwaine Scott—NBC/AP
NBC News
Brian Williams reports from Camp Liberty in Baghdad on March 8, 2007.Jeff Riggins—NBC/Getty Images
Inside the Obama White House: Brian Williams Reports
From Left: President Barack Obama and Brian Williams takes a look at what happens in the White House and the West Wing during a day in the life of the Obama administration on May 29, 2009.Subrata De—NBC/Getty Images
Saturday Night Live
From Left: Amy Poehler, Brian Williams and Seth Meyers on 'Saturday Night LIve' on Nov. 3, 2007.Dana Edelson—NBC/Getty Images
The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 1
Jimmy Fallon and Brian Williams "Slow Jam the News" on 'The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon' on Dec. 2, 2014.Douglas Gorenstein—NBC/Getty Images
"Girls" Season Four Premiere - After Party
From Left: Brian Williams, Allison Williams and Jane Stoddard Williams attend the "Girls" season four series premiere after party at The Museum of Natural History on Jan. 5, 2015.Jamie McCarthy—Getty Images
On Jan, 29, 2015, Brian Williams accompanied Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak, pictured here next to Williams, to a hockey game at Madison Square Garden in New York City
Brian Williams embraces Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak at a hockey game at Madison Square Garden in New York on Jan. 29, 2015, where Terpak was honored. Williams admitted to conflating events when describing his experiences in combat with Terpak during the Iraq war. On Feb. 10, he was suspended without pay for six months.James Devaney—GC Images

Still, that was the deal, Williams violated it and in strictly professional terms, his punishment was fair. Live by the myth of the anchor, die by the myth of the anchor. If Williams earned his position and his big salary through an unspoken agreement between news networks and their audiences–that anchors are monumental figures whose level of “trust” and “authority” is essential to the credibility of the networks’ reporting–then he’s got no place to complain after he threw his value out the door of a chopper.

But Williams’ demotion/life preserver–a new job as breaking news anchor for MSNBC–sends an odd mixed message. He’s not credible enough to anchor one NBC network, but he’s just fine for the other? You could make a perfectly defensible argument that, look, anchors are newsreaders, and while Williams told a lie, he’s no less suited for the job. And you can make a perfectly credible argument that anchors bear a public trust, which trust is shattered when they tell lies, on the newscast or off. This move, however, sort of says… both?

It also sends a message that MSNBC is NBC News’ purgatory, and at exactly the moment when the mothership is trying to revive the cable networks’ ratings. Not to mention that, per NBC, Williams will anchor NBC special reports when Holt is unavailable. It is, I suppose, an effort to do something other than give Williams the professional death penalty, but it could also look like Williams, aiming in the words of his apology to “earn back [viewers’] trust,” is also trying to earn his way back into Holt’s chair.

Once again, NBC News is trying–maybe thanklessly–to work its way out of internal drama in a way that risks generating other drama. The first test of that will come Friday, when a Matt Lauer interview with Williams airs on Today and Nightly News. If Lauer gives his colleague a softball platform like he did Rachel Dolezal this week, it’ll seem like public-relations theater. If the interview is legit, but Williams’ answers are evasive or lack introspection, the whole thing could just reignite the controversy.

Maybe that’s an impossible position for NBC, but as with Williams, the game of TV appearances and the performance of credibility is what they signed up for. They got into this through their anchor’s stories. Now they need to find the narrative that gets them out.

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