In the digital age, everything moves faster, and scandals involving popular celebrities travel at warp speed.
News stories can very quickly become sensations. Just ask Brian Williams, the once-admired star of NBC News who fell (plunged) from grace when he was caught exaggerating his reporting accomplishments in Iraq. When William admitted blowing up his acts, he promptly blew up. NBC News suspended him without pay for six months.
NBC News, a division of entertainment behemoth NBC Universal and parent Comcast, has the tough task of winning back viewers. It won’t be easy; ties of trust have been severed.
The Williams saga is a classic New York story, through and through. Think about it. In LA, by contrast, nobody would blink about a real life Ron Burgundy going Hollywood and losing his way. The town is all about fantasy and tinsel, after all, right?
But New York City is different. We’re gritty here. We expect authenticity. We demand accountability. When one of our heroes goes south on us, we want retribution (just ask New York Yankees tarnished icon Alex Rodriguez).
NBC is as New York as it gets, too. Not for nothing is its signature proclaiming, “Live From New York, It’s ‘Saturday Night’…”
The network was criticized for failing to police its poster child. Williams, not quite satisfied with his success as a news anchor, wanted apparently to be regarded as a combination of the best features of Walter Cronkite and Jon Stewart. Williams had so fancied himself as an entertainer that, according to Gabriel Sherman writing in New York magazine, he even approached CBS CEO Leslie Moonves to inquire about taking over for David Letterman.
Naturally, NBC News’ reputation has taken a big hit. The network looks negligent and foolish, as it has tumbled from the position of unchallenged ratings leader and unofficial darling of the media in the three key metrics of evening news, Sunday morning and, especially, breakfast-hour news from Monday to Friday.
Still, it’s Williams’ Icarus-like crash that has captured my (and many other media columnists and pundits) attention, because it happened so quickly and dramatically — and unnecessarily. If Williams had kept his big mouth shut, he would have never had to worry about covering up a lie. But he didn’t, for some insane reason to further prove himself, and now he is like Napoleon stuck on Elba and waiting for his release from the ranks of the banished.
And what about the severely damaged brand of NBC News? It has been competing ferociously with ABC, a rival it once routinely defeated in the ratings game. But in the wake of the Williams scandal, all bets are off and NBC has to fight for every fraction of a point.
Here’s how NBC can regain my trust:
1. Make a decision ASAP about Williams.
Specifically, does NBC intend to bring him back to the 6:30 p.m. broadcast? A firm decision would show strength of purpose, something NBC seemed to lack in the immediate aftermath of the scandal going public. (Either way, NBC should also confiscate Williams’ SAG card, for his own sake, and leave the yuks to his daughter, the actress Allison Williams of “Girls” fame.)
2. Achieve closure with the Williams Scandal.
If NBC dumps Brian, don’t just hang him out to dry with a press release — give the man some air time, which he deserves, to explain his side of the story. If you bring him back, same deal (plus, think of the soaring ratings you’ll get).
3. Answer the most damning charge of all in Sherman’s magazine piece.
NBC News, under Williams’ managing editor stewardship, was reluctant to pursue hard-hitting, potentially divisive stories at 6:30 p.m. Turn loose the evening-news staff to break some hard-hitting news right now.
4. End the celebrity-journalist culture.
Williams achieved the highest ratings at 6:30 because people trusted him and his news instincts. Once he became the alter ego of then-SNL Weekend Update anchor Seth Meyers, though, his credibility shrank. Williams doesn’t have to look like every story has the weight of the Nuremberg Trials, mind you, and he should flash his trademark empathy. But he — or his successor — had better shape up and not forget what chair he or she is sitting in.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Hire From Outside the Peacock (?) Network.
Williams has left a stench in the anchor chair. NBC may decide it has to make a fresh start — or that Williams deserves a second chance. King Solomon would scratch his head at the prospect of making this decision. But again, NBC has to deal from a position of strength — make a decision soon and move on.