“It’s sad,” said veteran network news executive Shelley Ross. “It’s really professional waterboarding at this point.” Ten weeks into the six-month unpaid suspension of Brian Williams, the erstwhile anchor—who was removed from the NBC Nightly News in February, after admitting to broadcasting a bogus story about a 2003 helicopter ride in Iraq—continues to be dangled by his ankles in the public square. Effectively muzzled by the reported terms of his punishment from defending himself in the media, Williams—who, ironically, had just signed a new five-year $50 million contract to extend his decade behind the anchor desk—was an easy target over the weekend for a new flurry of damaging leaks about fresh allegations of embellishments and fabrications.
On a snowy evening in December, Brian Williams and his wife, Jane, met with a small group of NBC executives for a celebratory dinner in a private room at Del Posto, Mario Batali’s restaurant in Chelsea. Williams had just notched his tenth anniversary anchoring the top-rated Nightly News, and NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke wanted to commemorate the past—and lock in the network’s future. For months, Williams had been in contract negotiations with Burke, a standoff NBC couldn’t afford to lose. Williams was the face of NBC News, with a nightly audience of more than 8 million people. More important, his program was an island of stability in a news division roiled by a series of self-inflicted crises.
Details matter. Truth matters. Fact-checkers are needed more than ever in a time of persistent spin. In news, the details matter. Just look at NBC’s Brian Williams, and maybe even Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. Williams, who was in the actual war zone of Iraq, has been suspended for six months for his harrowing account of a helicopter trip that wasn’t all that harrowing. O’Reilly, who was not in a war zone but at least left the impression that he might have been, wove as chilling a yarn as he could about covering riots in Argentina after the Falklands War. O’Reilly hasn’t been suspended but he’s been on air a lot to defend his reputation. What both Williams and O’Reilly face is that they live under the shadow of the public’s shorthand rule when it comes to trust: Have you been straight with us?
When the Brian Williams scandal broke, conservatives touted it is as a breakthrough moment in their war on media bias. Urging NBC to keep Williams in the "Nightly News" anchor chair, Tom Blumer at PJ Media speculated, “If the network continues to keep a serial fabricator on board, it will convince many of those who still buy what the press is selling that something is fundamentally wrong.” Sarah Palin also cast Williams errors onto the entire news industry, asking, “If they lie about things like this, what and who else do they lie about?” The leap from one newsman's fictionalized war story to systematic liberal bias in mainstream media seems is a long one; Williams's apparent flaw was self-aggrandizement, not ideology.
NBC News will cover the first presidential debate tonight from 9pm-11pmET. The broadcast will be anchored by Brian Williams in New York.