What NBC Must Do to Avoid Firing Brian Williams

It wasn’t exactly surprising when Brian Williams announced Saturday that he was vacating the anchor desk at “NBC Nightly News” for the next several days. The scandal now known as Choppergate shows no signs of abating, making his presence a problem at a network that had just announced its intent to conduct an internal investigation.

But what was interesting about Williams’ own declaration was that his timeout was positioned as being of his own volition. “I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast” are his exact words, the subtext of which sends a not-so-subtle message about NBC: The news division doesn’t want to be seen yet as taking any particular action. So Williams’ vacation has been cast as his prerogative.

Nevertheless, NBC News has to take some kind of action sooner than later regarding Williams, and it’s not going to be an easy decision.

Even if NBC’s investigation determines that the claims alleging Williams lied about being in an helicopter struck by an RPG in Iraq are accurate, most people at the network probably don’t want to see him go. Before Choppergate, Williams had a sterling reputation at a time where nearly every other part of NBC News was struggling (“Today,” “Meet the Press,” MSNBC, CNBC).

On the other hand, NBC News can’t be seen as sitting on its hands when its most prominent anchor has committed a clear ethical breach. So no matter how much it pains the division to slap the wrist of a hand that has fed them well, it can’t afford not to do something demonstrating a comprehension of the seriousness of the situation.

But what to do?

That’s one question the division’s execs are no doubt wrestling with during Williams’ self-imposed exile. But determining whether Choppergate was Williams’ only lie may be more important for NBC’s internal investigation than digging into the veracity of Choppergate itself. As speculation grows that Williams may have also exaggerated what he witnessed in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, that needs to be proven out just as much as what happened in the sky over Iraq.

There’s no determination more crucial to make right now for NBC because it helps clarify the decision. Put simply, if Williams is found to have fibbed on other occasions as well, he’s going to lose his job. No matter how valuable he is to the network, NBC is only going to tolerate the distraction of this controversy for just so long, and another lie will fuel this fire.

But if the current internal investigation concludes that Williams is not a serial prevaricator, NBC may be able to avoid firing him. While surely there will be critics who knock the network for taking any action other than termination, the damage done to the news division’s reputation will be outweighed by the damage done from losing its star player.

If NBC News can get to a place where it feels reasonably confident Choppergate was an isolated incident for Williams, then there’s room to introduce the notion of forgiveness into the controversy. That won’t satisfy his most ardent critics, but it gives the network some foundation for keeping him on the air.

But that doesn’t mean once NBC determines Choppergate was an outlier for an otherwise truthful track record, Williams can simply kick back in his anchor chair as if nothing ever happened. No, the network is going to have to take some kind of punitive measure here to acknowledge the gravity of the sin even if the punishment isn’t a pinkslip in order to silence any critics suggesting NBC doesn’t hold news ethics sacred.

The best move would be to suspend Williams for a lengthy period. But that doesn’t mean he can simply cool his heels until his start date. NBC and Williams would need to be careful about the optics of this suspension. The wrong thing to do would be for Williams to sit out the designated time off and simply return to the air without a word as if withstanding the punishment was penance enough.

If he truly wants to earn redemption, Williams would have to behave during that period like a man who — to borrow a phrase from his own statement — to be worthy of his viewers’ trust. Go personally apologize to the veterans who were on the helicopter that actually drew RPG fire. Talk publicly about the incident and acknowledge wrongdoing with far more authentic emotion than the dreadful manner in which he handled his apology.

And don’t get caught living the high life while in isolation, as he already did just two days after Choppergate blew up and he was photographed sitting in the bleachers at a hockey game with Tom Hanks. Go chat with another tone-deaf NBC News employee, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, about the perils of forgetting your personal life is under scrutiny when you’re a public figure.

All that and just the passage of time could work wonders on rehabilitating Williams’ image. He’ll never be in as high a standing as he once was, but the anchor may find a little effort can go a long way.

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