All Things Media: It’s Not About Brian

Brian Williams at the 65th Annual Peabody Awards Luncheon, June 5, 2006. | Peabody Awards

The great irony is that Wiliamsgate, Williamsgazi or whatever it is going to be called soon by some internet wag, is no longer about Brian Williams, the anchor of the NBC Nightly News broadcast.

Obviously, it is all about the NBC News anchor monster (although, by all accounts and molded public persona, a very nice fellow). But it is as much about where NBC News is heading.

By now, it is common lore about how Williams gradually embellished his Iraq war experience until he told his Nightly News audience recently that his helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. And, as we all know too well now, it was not.

He admitted he “conflated” events — the copter ahead of him was hit. Someone else might have written the original script, but these were Williams’s own experiences and presumably if someone wrote on the script — “Hi, I’m Tom Brokaw.” He would not read that.

In its shock and horror, NBC has launched an investigation led by the head of its investigative unit. Questions have been raised about Williams’s reporting during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and other places. But really that is a sideshow. The investigation will find that BW conflated actual events with his personal experience. Like he said.

Williams has already taken himself off the air “for a few days.” Whether NBC will formally suspend him, fire him or just say, “Oops. Never mind. We still love you, Brian,” will play out very publicly.

But what this is as much about now is Brian’s boss: NBC News President Deborah Turness. She was brought in from ITV News in the U.K. a year ago to enliven the peacock’s floundering news division and has wielded her presidency like a chainsaw in a slasher movie. “Meet the Press” was gutted, the “Today” show is limping at best, and now Williams. The cause of each were not of her doing, but they are on her watch. Looks more like the Burning of Washington than the Beatles’ Invasion.

Will Brian Williams survive? It will be hard to keep him on with media watchers baying for blood, but they might. NBC can ill afford to lose the one thing that is keeping it at number one. And the network has no Jimmy Fallon in the news wings.

If he does leave permanently it will be the end of era of network anchors dominating American journalism: think Cronkite, Rather, Jennings and Brokaw. Williams is the last of the news anchors with that kind of global recognition. Several classes of journalism college students were asked recently, and Williams was the only anchor they could name. The names of Scott Pelley of CBS News and David Muir of ABC News drew blank looks. And those were journalism students.

But this type of network news scandal is rarely just about the facts. CNN’s Tailwind scandal was as much about the Atlanta homeguard wanting to knock off then CNN top dog, Rick Kaplan who personified the hated New York media elite and then-president Tom Johnson wanting to get rid of the head of Investigative Unit Pamela Hill (both forced out). Rathergate (when CBS News accused President George W. Bush in 2004 of shirking his National Guard duty year before) was as much about the fact that the CBS News body-politic had had enough of anchor Dan and president Andrew Heyward (both went). The people love Williams, but plenty would be happy to see Turness on the next plane back the U.K.

So, It is not just Williams’s job on the line, it is the entire direction of NBC News.

Welcome to Turnessgazi.

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