Tom Brokaw, commenting on whether or not his successor Brian Williams would survive as the head of NBC’s “Nightly News” program, told the press that this “is a very serious issue that must be resolved on the facts.” It appears to have been resolved more on the basis of money and ratings. Were credibility the network’s first consideration, Williams would have been removed from his position last week.
If the most celebrated surgeon at a hospital killed a patient on the operating table through an act of gross malpractice, it wouldn’t take executives at that hospital weeks to determine whether or not that doctor should remain the “face” of the hospital. They would fire him immediately. They wouldn’t need to hold days of meetings to decide “if we should keep him on as the head of surgery.”
But NBC engaged in the equivalent of that exercise and has now concluded that it will suspend Williams without pay for six months, a resolution to the crisis that looks about as credible as his apology. NBC’s decision smacks of time-buying cynicism. It is perhaps a way to avoid offending his fans while seeing if his replacement works out and seeing if more problems arise. A suspension and demotion to a lesser position would have made more sense. Having placed the albatross of a six-month suspension and a $5 million penalty around his neck, NBC has now confirmed that he is a liar and damaged goods, which probably won’t make him any more desirable in six months than he is today. It seems unlikely that he could ever replicate his high ratings with that permanent stain on his record.
NBC is casting the decision in terms of its belief in “second chances,” which sounds like a silly rationale for a news organization and an unconvincing one for a bottom-line business. In the unlikely event NBC does bring him back in six months, it won’t be due to its belief in second chances but in his ability to generate better ratings than his temporary successor.
Williams couldn’t have made the decision easier for NBC executives by lying about his lying. His brief “apology” last week contained multiple layers of deception. He falsely cast his report as an innocent mistake and falsely presented the motivation for it as a desire to honor the troops. But most revealing is that he included a lie about following right behind the helicopter struck by the rocket fire, even though hours earlier the reporter for Stars and Stripes had pointed out to him that that wasn’t true.
The military paper released the full audio of its original interview with Williams on Monday and it shows that Williams, pre-apology, had been informed he was in a completely different helicopter formation nowhere near the RPG-struck helicopter. The reporter Travis Tritten said to Williams: “what I was told by one of the crew members who was actually on your Chinook was that you guys were an hour behind this grouping of three Chinooks that were out in the front.” Williams responded by saying, “And that’s the first I’ve heard of that. I did not think we were in trail by that far.”
It was the “first” he had heard of it and clearly the last time he wanted to hear about it, since he went on the air later that day and duped his viewers into thinking that he was close to the rocket fire in a “following aircraft.” He evidently concluded that telling them the whole truth would have struck them as too pathological: that he not only placed himself in the wrong helicopter but also placed himself in the wrong helicopter formation, one that was an hour away and going in the opposite direction.
On CNN a host gave an exasperated sigh when the reporter for Stars and Stripes confirmed that in the pre-apology interview Williams was still maintaining that his plane had been under enemy fire and was forced to land. Williams had twelve years to report the story accurately and he still couldn’t after the very people flying him supplied him with the information to do so. If dishonesty isn’t the explanation for that, then the only remaining one is that his powers of observation and basic reporting are nil, which didn’t exactly commend his continued presence as head of NBC news either.
But that can’t be the explanation, given his grasp of other military details on the trip. When not “conflating” one helicopter with another and one helicopter mission with a completely different one, he managed to be otherwise alert. He got all the lingo down pat (“birds”) and could speak in his interview with Stars and Stripes like a grizzled veteran, tossing out phrases about RPG fire in the “rear housing above the ramp” and describing a cargo drop with an air of authority: “our load master let loose a huge, our cargo, so you go through this over-torque where you rise in the air before you settle…”
After rattling off all this precise, puffed-chest talk, it is a little hard for him to present himself now as the clueless civilian, unaware of the most simple facts of the trip. Presumably, now that NBC has suspended him, he will have to launch a new apology tour and answer all of these questions his first bogus apology raises. Machiavellian NBC executives say they are “rooting” for him, which probably means they view his supposed six-month suspension as a test to see whether he implodes in his new explanations. Whatever happens, it will be near-impossible for Williams to overcome the verdict rendered by Chris Simeone, the pilot of his flight: “As far as Brian Williams, he’s a fake.”