February 2015: The Worst Video Media Disaster
It’s difficult to think of a high-profile American journalist whose career toppled faster and harder than NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. (Dan Rather’s resignation under fire comes to mind, but he was in third place at the time, not first, and had already weathered several strange incidents.)
Williams, who admitted to “misremembering” being shot down while covering the Iraq war, was quickly challenged about other inaccuracies, including claims of seeing dead bodies and contracting dysentery after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and observing a missile fly directly beneath his helicopter while covering the Israel-Hezbollah war.
The moment I’m calling the worst media disaster of the month is Williams’ insufficient and glib on-air apology, which only added fuel to his reputational crisis (Williams reportedly later admitted to colleagues that he knew his apology was lame.)
Days later, Williams followed that on-air apology with a memo that said he was pulling himself off the air for a few days. That, too, looked self-serving and glib; it was NBC News’ role to remove him from “his” broadcast for the time frame they deemed appropriate, not his.
When the news division did act, their punishment was severe: a six-month suspension without pay. The question of whether Williams will ever return is still officially open—but it’s hard to see how NBC, which has stripped Williams’ name from the broadcast, can welcome him back. Only if the constellations align—the ratings drop precipitously under temporary replacement Lester Holt, Williams embarks on a redemption tour that exceeds expectations, and Nightly News staffers warm to the idea of his return—is he likely to return to his chair.
More likely, Williams will look to resurrect his career elsewhere. Ethical questions aside, he remains an exceptionally gifted anchor with a fast wit and terrific sense of humor. It’s conceivable that CNN, for example—the network that gave disgraced former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer a comeback show—could put him on the air in prime time to host a Larry King-style, personality-driven news show. If his reputation can recover sufficiently, he’d be great at it.
Williams’ exaggerations also prompted other public figures to come under scrutiny this month. Fox News ratings juggernaut Bill O’Reilly appears to have exaggerated or made up several stories. He and Fox aggressively blamed the attack on ideologically motivated news organizations—which may be an effective PR strategy—but facts are facts, and the evidence against him, supported by a cavalcade of former O’Reilly news colleagues who refute his claims, is growing by the day.
President Obama’s new Veteran Affairs Secretary, Robert McDonald, faced similar questions of misrepresenting his experience when he told a homeless vet who had served in the Special Forces that he, too, had served in the Special Forces (he didn’t). Like Fox, the White House stood by its man.
I’ll end this post with an actionable tip. Look at your résumé, LinkedIn profile, and/or other online bios. Make sure everything is accurate (and preferably verifiable). It’s better to have a slightly less impressive but accurate bio than one that sets you up for a fall.