The financial fallout from Brian Williams’ penchant for self-aggrandizement goes beyond his own wallet but he would do himself (and the cable network NBC), good if he is to quietly walk away, says our U.S. Correspondent Tomas Mega
The sixteenth century French philosopher and essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne had this to say about lying: “Anyone who does not feel sufficiently strong in memory should not meddle with lying.” Brian Williams, the disgraced managing editor and anchor for NBC’s The Nightly News, would have done well to heed Montaigne’s words. Asserting that he “miss-remembered” being shot down in a helicopter during the 2003 Iraqi war (he was not shot down), Mr. Williams has now come under scrutiny for a series of self-styled proclamations. When he covered Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Williams claimed he “heard about a man killing himself, falling from the upper deck” of New Orleans’ Superdome. He later told Tom Brokaw, his predecessor at NBC that, “we watched, all of us watched, as a man committed suicide.” While riding in an Israeli helicopter in 2006, he reported an assortment of accounts regarding rockets fired by Hezbollah that allegedly passed under his chopper. One of the more bizarre declarations he publically made was to late night talk show host David Letterman, in which he said he received a piece of the Black Hawk helicopter that crashed the night of the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, sent to him by members of Seal Team Six. Witnesses and experts have disputed all of these claims.
It doesn’t end there: As facts emerge, Mr. Williams twisted accounts of meeting and receiving a personal blessing from Pope John Paul II in 1979 and his claim that he was at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate the night the Berlin Wall came down have all come into question. Mr. Letterman, described as a good friend of Mr. Williams, hasn’t been pleased that Mr. Williams used his show as a forum for his factual inaccuracies. He recently mocked Mr. Williams, targeting him in his nightly ‘Top Ten List,’ appropriately titled “Top 10 Things Brian Williams Has Said That May or May Not Be True.”
Shamefully, we now know that executives at NBC were aware of Mr. William’s penchant for overstatement. Respected columnist Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, reports, “NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography.” To add insult to injury, just weeks before the Iraqi helicopter tale broke, NBC was airing promotional ads marking ten years with Brian Williams and The Nightly News. One of the ads was titled “Trust” and narrated by the actor Michael Douglas. It highlighted the trust that Mr. Williams had built with his audience over the decade. That is a generous depiction, considering many are now calling Mr. Williams a serial liar and NBC was aware of issues regarding the journalist’s flawed self-promotion.
Initially removing himself from his daily news broadcast while the network “adequately deals with this issue” (Mr. Williams words), NBC has now suspended him for six months, without pay. He recently signed a new five-year contract with the network for a reported $10 million per year.
The financial fallout of this mess goes beyond Mr. Williams own wallet. NBC, owned by Comcast, stands to lose millions of dollars in advertising revenue. Around nine million viewers watch The Nightly News and a thirty-second spot cost about $48,000. That’s substantially more than other networks charge for advertising on their evening news broadcasts, because their viewing audience is less. When viewing loyalties switch, audience numbers dip and so does advertising revenue.
Mr. Williams isn’t the first high profile figure to publically exaggerate their experiences, especially when it comes to military conflict. During her 2008 run for the presidency, Hillary Clinton famously miss-spoke about having to run across a tarmac to avoid sniper fire in the Bosnian conflict of 1996. Moreover, when it comes to reporting the news, FOX News is commonly ridiculed for its brand of prejudiced and inflammatory reporting.
Nevertheless, for a network anchor, this is a different type of offense. Unlike their politicians, Americans expect their news anchors to be honest, factual and beyond reproach. They become iconic and the investment networks make in them is huge. For nineteen years, Walter Cronkite set the standard for a TV news anchor. Mr. Cronkite was often cited as “the most trusted man in America” for his brand of journalism. Many described him as a father figure, but Mr. Cronkite said he was more like “a comfortable old shoe.”
Mr. Cronkite never indulged in the self-promotion that Mr. Williams has and wasn’t beset by personal scandal, yet both were/are network stars, responsible for attracting large advertising revenues to their respective networks. If Mr. Williams’ ego and inclination for grandstanding powered him to intentionally miss-lead the public, it is hard to imagine that he will appear again on The Nightly News. That may be difficult to prove, but returning him to his anchor chair would be a hefty gamble for NBC. Their credibility would be badly bruised and ratings could plummet, forcing advertisers to spend their millions elsewhere.
Perhaps the noble thing to do would be for Brian Williams to acknowledge his penchant for self-aggrandizement, and quietly walk away. He has reportedly engaged a powerful attorney to represent him and would likely receive a substantial contract settlement from NBC. Then again, given the size of his ego, he may fight. As Andy Levy, a FOX News commentator sarcastically tweeted, “If he can survive being hit by an R.P.G., he can survive this.”