Yesterday's suspension of Brian Williams was an important move for NBC if it hopes to maintain its credibility as a responsible news organization. Though I would have preferred the network to suspend Williams sooner, pending investigation, it was a good move just the same, though the late response cost NBC some credibility.
The moment the story came out that Williams had exaggerated his experiences in Iraq, NBC should have taken him off the air. He should not have allowed to make an on-air apology before the matter had been thoroughly investigated. And he botched the apology as well -- it was slicker than something a politician would have come out with. Meaningless, with no substance.
Further, I was surprised to hear credible television news people rooting for Williams. Though they all said he was wrong to make the claims he did, many also said memories are fallible and it was a mistake anyone could have made and called for him to be let off easily. But that's most likely simply because he's one of them, one of the tribe.
Exaggeration in news? I'm reminded of CKLW 2020 News -- blood and guts and the most hype possible in a newscast in the 1970s. I also recall meeting and talking with a network news reporter many decades ago who told me his team would go into war zones and pay soldiers to fire their guns so the reporters would look like they were being courageous under fire -- and because, as members of the union, they received combat pay, which was higher.
I can honestly say I've never done this -- I've never been in news, but I did testify in a trial because the radio station I worked for exaggerated its contests. That station lost its license. Frankly, I'm glad that happened at someplace I worked at a young age, because we in radio are far too tempted to make things sound bigger than they are.
A lot of this is simply about ratings. Though Williams got busted for bragging about events that never happened on other, non-news shows, it was all to his, and NBC's, benefit. The trick, after all, is to become a legendary news reporter in the eyes of the consumer -- and that boosts ratings.
And exaggeration and hype go on in radio, too. Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes not.
But it is preventable, if you insist on an ethical operation. You can be creative, inventive, and even exciting without stretching the truth. In TV news there is never just one person involved -- there is a camera operator and probably a producer, plus editors. At some point, someone certainly knew that Williams was not telling the truth about which helicopter he had been on. There are reports that at least one veteran complained to NBC about Williams' story years ago. Meanwhile, some director somewhere was probably suggesting that Williams do even more things that made him appear courageous.
NBC may be making Williams the fall guy, but a handful of others must have known this all along and gone along with it. Were they suspended? No. And Williams' suspension, while well-deserved, is largely a move to buy time and maybe invent a way to bring him back to the anchor chair.
As broadcasters, we all could find ourselves in the same situation. In Miami, that same station I referred to earlier had a morning DJ "lost in the Devil's Triangle," calling in "reports from the ship" -- which was really a pay phone in a local bar. Did I mention they lost the license?
A few years ago this would have probably blown over, but social media is relentless and Williams could not survive the mockery and calls for his head, which spread like sparks in dry grass.
As managers, we need to keep this in mind and ask, "What would I do?" Or, rather, what will you do, because when you employ a lot of people who choose what they do and say on the air, something like this, in some form, is bound to happen to some of us.
First, we need to use this as a chance to communicate high ethics to our team members. Second, we need to be ready to protect our brand and its credibility by reacting quickly. You can unwind what you've done later if you make it a suspension pending investigation. Third, air talent agreements need to have clauses about hype and lying on the air.
There is lots to be learned from the Brian Williams situation -- it was not well handled by Williams or by NBC. Williams, already a household name, has gained an even higher profile -- for better or worse. Will his career survive? Will NBC bring him back? This I can't predict, but I think people want to trust their newscasters more than their politicians. They know politicians will lie and expect it -- but they don't expect it from journalists.