NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams is now enveloped in a career-threatening controversy after admitting Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003.
Williams repeatedly told the false story, but now says he misremembered the events. The admission came after crew members that were aboard the helicopter hit by rocket-propelled grenades said Williams was nowhere near the aircraft during the incident.
The evolution of his tale is quite damning. CNN has a timeline of how Williams changed the story over time to put himself in the center of the action.
What’s unclear is whether he purposefully lied (the overwhelming sentiment on Twitter is that he did) or whether he had a false memory of the event. Scoff at the latter if you wish, but there are scientific studies on how unreliable human memory is, particularly during dramatic events.
Even if the more charitable option (false memory) is correct, it suggests that Williams is an unreliable witness to major news events—which is, by itself, enough to seriously damage his credibility.
What should Williams do now in terms of crisis management? Some suggested owning up to the mistake would be sufficient:
@MrMediaTraining I vote for longer explanation, mea culpas, move on down the road w/no suspension. Own up to the screw up, move forward.
— Jennifer Eve (@jevemedia) February 5, 2015
However, would a longer explanation but no meaningful punishment be enough? Others said a suspension is warranted, and feel Williams could survive the blow:
@MrMediaTraining Surely this warrants a suspension. He’s a news anchor for pete’s sake, not a novelist.
— Deb Hammacher (@debhammacher) February 5, 2015
@MrMediaTraining He should step away for a while. Then mea culpas with media other than NBC. His likability will serve him well in long run.
— David Craig (@davidcraigstl) February 5, 2015
Another person raised a good point that indicts other people within the news division: Where were the other journalists who knew William’s story was bull?
@MrMediaTraining Lie. And remember, BW had NBC producers & cameramen with him. He spoke of his “team”. Did they stay quiet to protect him?
— Judge Elihu Smails (@JudgeElihu) February 5, 2015
My judgment: NBC News, which has its lead anchor telling tall tales that made him the hero of his own story, must act. They should suspend Williams (or place him on a leave of absence) immediately. During that time, they should examine his other reporting to make sure this fabrication is truly an isolated incident.
A suspension isn’t only the right thing to do, but it may help Williams keep his anchor job. Other stories will quickly fill the news vacuum, and his absence will take at least some of the air out of this story.
Upon his return, Williams must provide a more credible explanation to viewers—one that doesn’t contain the glibness of yesterday’s insufficient on-air apology. Though doing so will resurrect the story and may lead to more negative headlines, the second telling won’t be accompanied by the same shock as yesterday’s revelation. Either way, it’s a necessary step.
Some people are calling for his immediate resignation, and it’s possible Williams will be out. But I still view this as a survivable scandal; a damaged Brian Williams may still be preferable to NBC than an undamaged successor—although Lester Holt would be great at the job.
UPDATE: Williams has since taken a temporary leave. “In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions,” he wrote in a memo to staff. “Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”