The atmosphere surrounding Brian Williams has turned so toxic that it’s not clear when—or even if—he’ll be able to return to the anchor chair.
The original plan—Williams apologizes, takes himself off the air for a few days, schmoozes with Letterman, and slides back into his job—has crumbled. The apology was weak and inaccurate, too fleeting to heal the wound over telling a lie about his chopper in Iraq having been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.
His statement that he had decided as managing editor to suspend himself made it look like nobody at NBC is in charge, that he is so big and famous that he answers to no one. And NBC isn't really conducting an internal "investigation" that would hold Williams accountable. So now he’s in a kind of professional limbo, with no apparent Plan B.
What’s been striking to me is how many people are willing to end what has been a pretty solid career because of this one admittedly horrible mistake. Of course, new reports of discrepancies aren’t helping, serving instead as a kind of Chinese water torture eroding what’s left of his credibility. And the feedback I’m getting—on Twitter, Facebook and by e-mail—is overwhelmingly against Williams keeping his NBC job.
There's even a Rasmussen poll out: 40 percent say Williams should resign, 35 percent disagree and 25 percent aren't sure.
A few lonely voices are starting to defend Brian Williams, to call for a sense of proportion in dealing with his Iraq deception. Fox’s Alan Colmes said yesterday it was “sad” to see this mistake “destroy a man and destroy his career.”
Mediaite founder Dan Abrams, who worked with Williams when he was an NBC legal analyst, does not excuse the mistake but says this:
“I am troubled by the fervor, occasional glee, and potentially disproportionate fury emanating from an unusual assortment of allies now determined to end Brian’s storied career based on what we know today. This alliance of certain capital-J journalists, conservative bloggers, and some who simply despise any rich and famous journalist are a formidable force.”
Abrams says Williams’ comedic appearances on the likes of “SNL” and the “Daily Show” have boosted his popularity but made him more vulnerable:
“If this had all happened to Scott Pelley for example, this never would have received anything like this sort of attention.
“The problem for Brian is that unlike an opinionated cable news host who might have an army of like-minded supporters prepared to fight the social media war, a network news anchor’s support these days is inevitably going to be far less passionate, even for Brian. They may like and appreciate him but few are going to be prepared to do ‘battle’ for him and so it’s hardly surprising that he is generally being skewered by the social media masses.”
An NBC colleague, Joe Scarborough, says he can’t be objective because they’re friends and neighbors. He told viewers: “I’m hopeful when the madness – when the fury dies down and the decision is made to judge what Brian Williams’ future should be, that that decision will be based on the entirety of his career and not on one or two or three mistakes.”
Morning Joe—who deserves credit for tackling what most of MSNBC has ignored--added: “If he exaggerated, if he puffed his chest out a little bit — news people do that.” And there was this reframing of the controversy: “A misstatement or an exaggeration about a helicopter is far less damning to the future of this country than the reams of misinformation that were reported leading up to the Iraq War...when a lot of reporters should have asked a lot tougher questions.”
An interesting twist: Was Williams’ moment of self-aggrandizement worse than the legions of journalists who failed to challenge the claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction?
Piers Morgan, saying Williams offered him advice for his ill-fated CNN talk show, is in the camp that says calling for Williams' job is an overreaction:
“The only logical solution to the frenzied reaction to the NBC news anchor's public admission of a mistake is for him to be feathered, tarred, dragged through the streets of New York to Times Square, and stoned to death.
“Even then, I doubt his most ferocious critics, especially in the brutal slaughterhouse of social media, would be sated. They’d want to see his bones removed, sawn into pieces and hurled into the Hudson River…
“We surely need to get a collective grip and gain some perspective on all this.
Brian Williams didn’t kill anyone. He skewed a story about his experience in Iraq which made him sound a bit closer to the action and therefore more heroic than he actually was. It was untrue, and wrong of him to do it, but why should it be terminally so?”
But even as some of Williams’ allies step into the spotlight, new contradictions on other stories—not just Hurricane Katrina—are putting the anchor in a deeper hole.
The Washington Post says Williams “has given varying accounts of the risks he faced in reporting on Israel’s war with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in 2006.
“In a 2007 interview, Williams described a close encounter with rockets fired by Hezbollah as he flew over northern Israel in an Israeli military helicopter. ‘There were Katyusha rockets passing just beneath the helicopter I was riding in,’ he told a student interviewer from Fairfield (Conn.) University that year.
“But Williams didn’t mention that in his own account of the helicopter trip, written on an NBC News blog in July the previous year. In that version, he was in a Blackhawk helicopter ‘at 1,500 feet,’ accompanied by ‘a high-ranking general in the Israeli Defense Forces’ and that rocket fire preceded them rather than passed beneath them.
“Williams wrote that the pilot reported ‘some shelling right now . . . They landed about 30 seconds ago.’ Williams wrote that he noticed ‘trails of smoke and dust’ where rockets had landed in the countryside. ‘Then,’ he wrote, ‘I noticed something out the window. From a distance of six miles, I witnessed a rocket launch.’”
But Bloomberg quotes Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army official who accompanied Williams on the chopper, as saying “that during their flight he and Williams saw Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon strike the ground below them in northern Israel. He said his recollection was that the anchor’s subsequent reporting ‘was representative of the experience.’”
Things have reached the point that the New York Post is questioning a tale that Williams has told of his teenage years in Red Bank, N.J.:
“In a 2005 interview with Esquire magazine, Williams said a thief drew on him in the 1970s — leaving him ‘looking up at a thug’s snub-nosed .38 while selling Christmas trees out of the back of a truck.’”
The tabloid doesn’t disprove the story, just quotes Red Bank residents as doubting it.
So with Politico reporting that Steve Burke, the Comcast executive who is CEO of NBC Universal, held a Sunday meeting at his home to discuss the crisis, what happens next?
Williams needs to find a way to make a more abject apology and seek the forgiveness of the American people. NBC has to show that it has taken some action that reflects the seriousness of the situation and not just letting its star player call fouls on himself.
One thing is clear: This storm is not likely to blow out to sea by itself.