Brian Williams suspended: How big a blow was dealt to network news?

Brian Williams was suspended for six months from his 'NBC Nightly News' broadcasts. While some are wondering if he can redeem his reputation, others ponder whether his embellishments are indicative of a larger problem in network news.

Brad Barket/Invision/AP
Brian Williams speaks at the eighth annual Stand Up for Heroes, presented by the New York Comedy Festival and Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York, Nov. 5. Mr. Williams is stepping away from NBC’s 'Nightly News' as the network looks into the anchor’s admission that he told a false story about being on helicopter hit by a grenade while reporting on the Iraq war.

Updated: 8:25 pm

"NBC Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams was suspended for six months without pay Tuesday evening. But the debate over what he has done to the credibility of broadcast news continues to take shape.

The revelation that the widely popular newsman fabricated a story about being hit by an rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) while flying in a Chinook helicopter during the invasion of Iraq – and may have embellished others – has in many ways called the entire reputation of broadcast news into question. Some media experts suggest that Mr. Williams's fall from grace is one sign of the increased focus on news as entertainment, which has crept into network broadcasts since cable and online news broadened the playing field.

The drive for ratings makes Williams’s story a cautionary tale about today’s news landscape, says Len Shyles, communications professor at Villanova University just outside Philadelphia.

“Once upon a time, news was a money loser, but was kept separate from the other divisions of the networks so that the journalists in their employ could operate without much attention to the bottom line,” he says via e-mail, adding, “No more.” 

The pressure to gain ratings grew from the change that melded news with entertainment divisions for the networks, he says. The proliferation of digital media, presenting further competition to the legacy media, has added more pressure to collect eyeballs, Dr. Shyles notes. 

Even if loyal NBC viewers stay with the program, Williams will now be viewed as the anchor who exaggerated the details of his front-line reporting experiences, says Jeffrey McCall, who teaches in the communication department at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind.

“This matter is important because Williams is one of the leading news agenda setters for our nation,” he says via e-mail. Williams's decisions affect what topics will get covered and how, “not just on his network, but on other news outlets that follow his agenda lead.”

If his agenda topics or his approach to those topics can't be trusted, says Mr. McCall, “that is very bad, indeed, for our news consuming public.”

Williams's newscast had been regularly winning the evening news race against CBS and ABC, with some 10 million viewers nightly. However, just two days after he made his on-air admission, NBC lost out to ABC – fallout that may have more to do with the future of Williams than anything else, says former ABC and CBS producer John Goodman.

“The fact that there's even a mini-debate about Brian resigning shows how far network news standards have fallen,” he says via e-mail.

During the era of Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, and David Brinkley, or more recently the Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, and Dan Rather years, he says, “there would have been no debate.” Williams would have been dismissed.

Williams has become a punch line for the late-night comics and a target of the Twitterverse, Mr. Goodman points out, adding, “How can that help the credibility of a news division?”

However, in a time of corporate ownership that puts a premium on profits, ratings may well drive this decision, he says.

“Unless the 'NBC Nightly News' ratings tank,” he says, “it's possible Brian might survive.”

NBC brass announced that the network has launched an investigation of not just the Chinook incident but others as well, including his report that he witnessed a dead body float by his hotel during his coverage of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.

Even as such venerable figures as former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw are quoted as saying that Williams’s future is "up to Brian and NBC News executives,” most observers lean toward the view that Williams has done irreparable damage both to his own and the network’s credibility.

“The problem Williams has is that he never came really clean about what he said,” says brand and crisis communications expert Stan Steinreich, president of Steinreich Communications in Fort Lee, N.J., and also a former ABC producer as well as New York Times reporter.

“It’s an unforgivable sin when you exaggerate or don’t tell the truth in that position, so I don’t know how you come back from that to sit in that critical role of newscast anchor again,” he says, adding that he is “confused” by the announcement that NBC is investigating Williams.

“What does that mean?” he says. “That if you only lied once, that’s OK, but if you did it more than once, well, that’s not?”

Fellow media strategist Scott Sobel points out that the story itself is a major hurdle for Williams to overcome. He says that he has flown in Chinook helicopters himself and spoken with military veterans about the impact of being hit by RPG fire.

“No way Williams would have accidentally misremembered what happened to him unless he had a mental breakdown,” he adds via e-mail.

A recent Rasmussen Reports national telephone poll revealed that some 40 percent of Americans think Williams should resign as a result of his misrepresentation, while 35 percent of the 800 participants polled Feb. 7-8 feel he should keep his job. Another 25 percent were not sure.

[Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify Stan Steinreich's current affiliation.]

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