More than forty years ago, Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein taught us to “follow the money.” Those words of wisdom certainly apply to the current troubles that NBC News anchor Brian Williams is having. It is clear that Williams broke journalistic ethics, and some sort of punishment, including financial sacrifice on his part, is appropriate.
But what do we learn if we follow NBC’s money? Williams has been extremely profitable for the network. For the week ending on Friday, Feb. 6 (Williams’ last night), NBC had 10,177,000 viewers; ABC had 9,460,000, and CBS had 7,853,000.
But at the same time as Williams has been cashing in with his $10 million per annum salary, so has NBC. Often,the network uses the very techniques for which Williams is now being criticized. It embellishes its descriptions of all of its shows. Their entertainment division coined the phrase, “Can’t Miss TV.” Really, you can’t miss it, or what? They have not yet applied that tag line to their Nightly News, but there is a certain irony in NBC’s most recent tag line about Williams and Nightly News, “He’s been there. He’ll be there.” Here is one of the most recent promotion pieces for the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.
As the stories of Brian Williams’ exaggerations and falsehoods multiply, it is important to keep in mind that NBC has not been an innocent bystander. Like the other broadcast networks, it promotes its newscasts with the “cult of personality.” Each network says that whoever is sitting in the anchor seat is the paragon of virtue and a rock of stability. When Williams began crossing into the entertainment world with frequent appearances on David Letterman and Jon Stewart, the network did not say, “No, you can’t do that; it’s unbecoming for a trusted newscaster.” No, NBC laughed all the way to the bank, riding on the back of Williams. The more face time he had on TV, especially time when he was being funny and boosting his image, the more opportunity there was for NBC to cash in on the Williams brand.
If NBC was really so concerned about the integrity of what it puts on the air, why does it allow its affiliates to broadcast the shameful cacophony of distorting political ads that are run by candidates in each election cycle? Why does it promote its own programming in the body of its newscasts? Why does it constantly blur the line between news and entertainment on the Today Show?
Yes, the six month suspension without pay for Brian Williams may be appropriate. As more questionable journalism by Williams is revealed, perhaps his contract should be terminated. NBC is Williams’ employer and it has the right to fire him. But isn’t NBC also a co-conspirator in the mis-deeds? Isn’t NBC an un-indicted co-conspirator?
NBC has repeatedly said it is examining what Williams did. But the network has not said a word about examining its own behavior. This is not unusual behavior for an employer or anyone who is higher in the pecking order. It certainly would be refreshing if NBC engaged in a little introspection, considered an apology of its own, and moved to bring more integrity to its own standards and practices.