Most of the media buzz about Brian Williams’ incident (or incidents) of “misremembering” has focused mainly on the NBC Nightly News anchorman himself. Being that he has been the face of the now highest rated broadcast network news program for several years, the spotlight is understandable.
News divisions build their image around the man or woman who sits behind that desk five nights a week. That said, as someone who has spent the majority of her broadcasting career in secular TV and radio newsrooms, I believe the blame for the fallout and firestorm following Williams’ fibs and flubs go far beyond the anchor desk. This is also another reason why Americans who care about truth need to be concerned.
Besides that his public mea culpa sounded like he was apologizing for getting caught and not for what he actually did, the entire situation poses real issues not just for a major network but for viewers as well, many of whom are Catholic. Yes, the audience for Catholic outlets continues to grow, but most people still get the majority of their news from secular sources.
Williams has been suspended for six months without pay; this after he clumsily apologized on the air for embellishing his experience on a military helicopter while covering the Iraq war back in 2003. He claimed the chopper was brought down by rocket-propelled-grenade fire and forced to land. His take on the incident was soon publicly criticized by the flight engineer on board, forcing Williams to make an on-air apology. A few days after that statement, where he claimed he “conflated and misremembered” what happened, he removed himself temporarily from his job. But shortly after his departure, his bosses at NBC stepped in with their suspension.
NBC and their $10 million-dollar-a-year anchorman are hoping some time off will make America forget. That’s not likely to happen, even though the time off has been greatly extended. Shortly after the Williams debacle became public, sources inside NBC News began leaking some other embarrassing and troubling information about the NBC News operation. Sources told several news outlets that NBC execs were well aware of Brian’s tall Iraq war tale; so aware that they told him repeatedly to stop repeating it.
Producers and photographers were also keenly aware of Williams’ version of the 2003 incident. This raises several questions about the credibility not only of the anchorman but of the rest of the staff cranking out a newscast seen by millions of Americans every night.
Williams is not just the anchor. He doesn’t just read the news. He is the managing editor, which means he has direct input and a final say as to what stories are covered and how those stories are covered. At what point, if ever, did the executives stop and think about the choice they made in Williams? Did it ever occur to anyone on the inside that someone they know who obviously has a problem with fudging facts and embellishing stories might not be the best choice for managing editor and lead anchor? Apparently not.
Apparently the bottom line is more important. Williams has (or had) what they needed to attain: strong ratings. Now that the ratings are in jeopardy, Williams has been, at least for now, shown the door.
Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call to NBC and other secular outlets that have had their own share of “never let the facts get in the way of a good story” moments. I’m also hoping viewers, and in particular Catholics who still take the secular news seriously, will take what they see and hear with a grain of salt.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 130.