While it would be unseemly, Brian Williams should probably send fruit baskets to George Stephanopoulos and Bill O’Reilly. Because while the onetime NBC News anchor’s crimes against journalism can be viewed a bit less severely with the benefit of hindsight, his network’s sluggish handling of the controversy looks considerably worse.
Essentially, NBC spent more than four months being peppered by uncomfortable questions after suspending Williams for embellishing tales in TV interviews — apparently to buff up his image and be more entertaining on talk shows – to get back to the place where the situation appeared to be headed all along. Williams doesn’t deserve to be drummed out of the TV news business entirely, but he’s no longer fit to serve as the premiere face of NBC News, even in the slightly devalued real estate of nightly news.
NBC can be given some latitude for wanting to conduct a thorough investigation, and ensure there were no egregious sins — or major surprises — yet to be uncovered. Yet at a certain point, it became clear the network was doing all it could to find some way to retain Williams, while dragging its feet on determining an actual role.
All that did, alas, was diminish Lester Holt as Williams’ replacement while he endured a kind of limbo, and create a general perception of paralysis and indecision. And if part of that could be blamed on Williams and his representatives pushing back against efforts to demote him, any decent card player would have eventually called the anchor’s bluff, given the truncated list of more appealing options available to him.
As for the aforementioned Stephanopoulos and O’Reilly, both were involved in controversies during the intervening months, only to have their networks circle the wagons around them and offer unqualified support. O’Reilly staunchly defended himself against allegations that he inflated his own war-reporting credentials, blaming the messengers. But there was enough evidence to look into the matter further had Fox not chosen to brush the whole thing off.
By contrast, Stephanopoulos apologized for his charitable donations to the Clinton Foundation — a different sort of offense, but nevertheless a major lapse in judgment in terms of the optics given his history working for President Clinton. In essence, the anchor thoughtlessly handed ammunition to conservative critics who never trusted his political leanings or efforts to be impartial all along.
Neither case is completely analogous to what Williams did, but both speak to something less than perfection. And one has to wonder if NBC watched those controversies fade and experienced second thoughts about its initial response, starting with how Williams botched his on-air apology.
Perhaps foremost, NBC’s protracted process invited headaches, including the leaks that led right up to the official announcement. Although Andrew Lack was brought in to oversee NBC News and, among other things, resolve the situation and restore order, the destabilizing effects of the past several months won’t be put to rest by one press release.
“This matter has been extensively analyzed and deliberated on by NBC,” NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke said in a statement announcing the move. “We are moving forward.” Unlike what got Williams into trouble, that first part, at least, exhibits a true gift for understatement.