Break­ing news: Wil­liams saga far from over

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - MARY McNA­MARA TELE­VI­SION CRITIC

When did mak­ing “a num­ber of in­ac­cu­rate state­ments about his own role and ex­pe­ri­ences cov­er­ing events in the field” be­come a vi­able job history for an MSNBC break­ing-news an­chor?

On Thurs­day, ap­par­ently. That’s when NBC an­nounced the fate of Brian Wil­liams, who was sus­pended ear­lier this year as an­chor of “NBC Nightly News” when it was re­vealed that he had con­flated his role in a 2003 at­tack on U.S. he­li­copters in Iraq.

Af­ter months of in­ves­ti­ga­tion turned up sim­i­lar in­ac­cu­ra­cies, though not “for the most part” on news plat­forms, NBC de­cided that Wil­liams was no longer fit for duty on NBC or the “Nightly News.”

But he would do just fine as a break­ing-news an­chor on MSNBC.

Where, one can only imag­ine, the joy is pal­pa­ble. There’s noth­ing like be­com­ing a re­hab fa­cil­ity for tainted col­leagues to make jour­nal­ists want to do their very best work. Any­one seek­ing the ser­vices of Rachel Mad-

dow or any MSNBC re­porter might want to be on the phone right now.

Oh, and con­grat­u­la­tions, Mr. Lester Holt, for up­hold­ing the stan­dards of jour­nal­ism, ex­ud­ing grace un­der pres­sure and be­com­ing, also as of Thurs­day, the first solo African Amer­i­can an­chor of the nightly news. Se­ri­ously. We will miss your chill­ing true-crime in­tros on “Date­line,” but you have done an ad­mirable job in less-than-op­ti­mal cir­cum­stances.

More­over, your steady num­bers prove that one doesn’t need to be a self-mythol­o­giz­ing, multi-plat­form per­form­ing brand to hold an au­di­ence; per­haps be­ing a good solid news an­chor is enough.

Not that any­one is go­ing to be talk­ing about this, or you, be­cause Brian Wil­liams is once again cen­ter stage.

That’s prob­lem No. 1: For bet­ter or for worse, when you are the news, it is dif­fi­cult for you to cover the news. Even “break­ing news,” which NBC ap­par­ently and in­ex­pli­ca­bly con­sid­ers the least im­por­tant bit, the arena in which a dis­graced jour­nal­ist can re­build trust.

What if the break­ing news in­volves the rev­e­la­tion of a public fig­ure caught in a big fat lie? What’s the Brian Wil­liams play on that one?

The po­ten­tial for scathing com­men­tary is, as you see, bound­less — oh, to be a f ly on the wall in the writ­ers room of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” Comedic mono­logues and memes are not, tra­di­tion­ally, the hoped-for re­sult of any scan­dal res­o­lu­tion, par­tic­u­larly when the is­sue seemed so clear cut.

If Wil­liams’ ac­tions were so far be­yond the bounds of jour­nal­is­tic in­tegrity that he could not re­turn to the “Nightly News,” then he should have been fired. Or re­signed.

Although Wil­liams is tak­ing what is be­ing de­scribed by anony­mous sources as a sig­nif­i­cant pay cut, de­mo­tion, as any HR rep will tell you, is al­most never a good idea. And the higher up the per­son­nel, the worse that idea, and the like­li­hood of re­sent­ment among all con­cerned, be­comes.

NBC may be try­ing to help a man they con­sider a good guy who got car­ried away, or maybe just pro­tect a long-term in­vest­ment. (Wil­liams was in his sec­ond year of a five-year con­tract that paid him $10 mil­lion a year when the scan­dal broke.) Ei­ther way, it’s dif­fi­cult not to see this move as “spe­cial treat­ment,” a case of one-per­centers tak­ing care of each other.

Even if the “sec­ond chance” im­pe­tus is sin­cere, pun­ish­ment, even in the form of les­son-learn­ing, is not sup­posed to be part of the deal at this level. Who wants to watch a man they once re­spected work his way out of the dog­house? As he’s sup­posed to be, you know, re­port­ing the news?

A jury-rigged so­lu­tion like this might fly in another wing of NBCUniver­sal, but this is the news di­vi­sion, in which the de­mands of the pro­fes­sion are sup­posed to trump all else. Where trans­parency should at least get a nod.

Yet NBC has de­clined to make its in­ves­ti­ga­tion public, and when Wil­liams fi­nally breaks his si­lence Fri­day, it will be to NBC col­league Matt Lauer, who is no stranger to in-house in­san­ity and who re­cently came un­der fire for his soft­ball in­ter­view of Rachel Dolezal. Let the heal­ing be­gin! One as­sumes that Wil­liams will use his time with Lauer to apol­o­gize in a more thor­ough and can­did way than his orig­i­nal rather cava­lier ad­mis­sion: that in go­ing out of his way to thank a vet­eran, he in­ad­ver­tently mis­re­mem­bered some­thing that hap­pened a long time ago and that cer­tainly in­volved him sleep­ing un­der a plane in the desert.

Per­haps it will be a mov­ing in­ter­view and a con­vinc­ing, rev­e­la­tory apol­ogy, but it comes very late in the game, which is the strangest as­pect of the whole messy scan­dal. I don’t know how many episodes of “The West Wing” or “Scan­dal” or the life of Bill Clin­ton a per­son has to watch to know that it is im­per­a­tive to get out in front of a break­ing scan­dal, to be fast and frank and thor­ough in both ad­mis­sion and apol­ogy, but Wil­liams was ap­par­ently too busy slow-jam­min’ the news to pay at­ten­tion.

He had a lot of good­will among view­ers, and many peo­ple, in­clud­ing fel­low jour­nal­ists, were more than will- ing to give him the ben­e­fit of the doubt. We all make mis­takes, and, af­ter a good long hash-out, Amer­i­cans love to for­give peo­ple. We are a na­tion of sec­ond and third and 15th acts. We live to ap­plaud pos­i­tive trans­for­ma­tion.

If Wil­liams, with his ob­vi­ous quest for per­sonal brand dom­i­na­tion, was play­ing a bit too closely with fire, well, lots of peo­ple would have un­der­stood that. Most jour­nal­ists un­der­stand the need to be­come more ac­ces­si­ble, more multi-plat­form, more fun.

When Wil­liams dis­cov­ered, like the good-na­tured owner of Juras­sic World, that a push for a sex­ier at­trac­tion with big­ger view­er­ship can wind up bit­ing you in the butt, many would have been grate­ful for the les­son, more than will­ing to for­give a can­did ad­mis­sion along those lines.

In­stead, there were four months of “in­ves­ti­ga­tion” re­sult­ing in this Mao-like call for re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, with the cyn­i­cal bonus-hope that Wil­liams will boost MSNBC rat­ings. Which he may, at least short-term, as ev­ery­one tunes in to see what he does and what he says and how the mood seems and if any­one good leaves be­cause of him.

If noth­ing else, this de­ci­sion ex­tends the news cy­cle of the Brian Wil­liams story for at least a few more months, which is not good for any­one. Much of the en­su­ing press re­ports, in­clud­ing a re­cent ar­ti­cle in Van­ity Fair, re­lied heav­ily on un­named sources, but they have of­fered of­ten scathing por­tray­als of all the ma­jor par­tic­i­pants.

And now there will be fol­low-ups.

Carolyn Cole Los An­ge­les Times

FOR­MER AN­CHOR Brian Wil­liams will be as­signed to han­dling break­ing news on ca­ble net­work MSNBC.

Brad Barket Invision / AP

WIL­LIAMS was sus­pended ear­lier this year.

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