WATERTOWN — It’s inconceivable that NBC ever allowed Brian Williams to retire.
And I don’t say that as a longtime fan of the longtime news anchor. He should have been tossed out on his keister in 2015 when his bosses learned that he lied about his experience covering the Iraq War in 2003.
He was aboard a Chinook helicopter that took small arms fire. Another helicopter was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.
At first, Williams accurately reported what had transpired. But over the years, he embellished his account by inserting himself into the story about being downed by an RPG.
In 2015, military personnel who were on the helicopters revealed that Williams was not on the one that was grounded by an RPG. NBC placed him on six-month suspension without pay and eventually removed him from his position of hosting “NBC Nightly News.” He eventually returned to MSNBC.
On Tuesday, Williams announced he will retire at the end of the year. He has been with NBC for 28 years.
NBC was grossly derelict in its obligation to promote responsible journalism.
At the time of his 2015 suspension, Williams was earning about $10 million annually. So being forced off the air for six months would leave the poor guy a paltry $5 million in wages. Hey, it’s not like Williams was going to need food stamps to survive.
Yes, he lost his perch atop the NBC News organization. And he was “banished” to the hinterlands of late-night cable television (his program on MSNBC, “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams,” airs at 11 p.m. weeknights).
But all in all, that’s a relatively modest penalty for someone who broke the news industry’s No. 1 rule: Tell the truth! And both Williams and NBC have tried to soft-peddle his suspension.
In a June 19, 2015, interview about the helicopter controversy with Matt Lauer (Wow! Brian Williams and Matt Lauer — now here are two members in good standing of the Journalism Hall of Shame), Williams wanted to eat his cake and have it to.
He said he needed to own his misdeed while also claiming that information about the incident became blurry in his mind. On the one hand, he admits he told something that wasn’t true; but on the other hand, he infers it wasn’t intentional. So he didn’t do it and he won’t do it again, eh?
In a story published Tuesday about Williams’s retirement, NBC tiptoed around the false account he gave. Here’s what the network reported:
“In 2015, when he was the anchor of ‘NBC Nightly News,’ Williams was suspended by the network for six months after he told an inaccurate story about his helicopter’s having been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. He admitted on the air that he had ‘made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago.’”
He made a mistake; that’s it. A boo-boo, a slip-up. No one dare call it fraud.
Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and presume this is true, that facts merely got turned around in Williams’s head.
If this is the case, he has no business being a journalist. Reporting the news requires the ability to recall events as accurately as possible. If Williams is inclined to misremember information, he’s no good to a newsroom.
And this isn’t the only time that Williams has twisted the truth.
In 2006, he made false claims on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” about an experience aboard a Black Hawk helicopter operated by members of the Israeli Air Force. He lied in 2008 about being at Brandenburg Gate in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. In 2011 following the death of Osama bin Laden, he fraudulently asserted on the air that he flew into Baghdad at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003 with members of SEAL Team Six.
Williams’s problem is that he enjoys the spotlight. So he can’t seem to resist boosting his involvement in various stories.
He’s appeared on numerous television programs such as “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock.” At the height of his popularity as the face of NBC News, he pursued the status of celebrity at the expense of being a journalist.
This damages the credibility of the news business, and all the rest of us in this industry have to deal with the stink. Williams may have been the one to engage in these ethical lapses.
But people already skeptical of our profession often paint with a broad brush, so we all end up being guilty.
NBC would have done itself a huge favor by taking a stand against Williams’s lies. Credibility is nurtured when people adhere to principles. Firing its news anchor would have shown critics that NBC is committed to presenting the truth, no matter where this leads.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org. They also may follow him on Twitter: @WDT_OpEd.