Commentary

Brian Williams And The Fog Of Ratings War

Call it what you want, the “fog of memory” or “misremembering,” “conflation” of two different helicopter experiences, or a “mistake I would have never chosen to make.” NBC Nightly News’ otherwise affable anchor Brian Williams has used all four mystifying locutions in three different apologies to explain his memory lapses about his claim to having been shot down with his crew in a Chinook helicopter in a desert in northern Iraq while covering the war in 2003.

In the 12 years since, he’s retold and embroidered the tale about the RPG-hit “bird” in which he was traveling and its terrifying crash landing. Afterwards, he was grounded in the desert for three days during a sandstorm, and that part is verifiable. 

Remember the old ad slogan, “Pepperidge Farm Remembers”? That was used to conjure up a feeling of golden, homey, hand-baked goodness for a factory-made loaf of bread. It was powerful. By contrast, the hashtag #BrianWilliamsMisremembers” immediately started blowing up all over social media, leading me to think that the golden-haired, golden boy-ish newsman would soon be toast.

advertisement

advertisement

Not so fast. Of course, his on-air apology on Wednesday night lit up social media. Almost instantly, he started getting ridiculed for his misrememberization game. One photo showed him inserted, Forrest Gump-like, into the Last Supper, eating a pizza; another had him riding shotgun in the white Bronco with O.J. 

I myself rubbernecked his Thursday evening broadcast to see if he would further elaborate or respond to the response. Au contraire. He seemed relaxed, almost breezy, and did the evening broadcast as if nothing had happened. And out. 

To me, this felt like the corporate stonewalling of the NFL or Nixon, and it was as objectionable as his “I was only trying to honor the military” apologies. Never mind, the show must go on. How could NBC, a news organization, not have addressed it in some way, with an announcement of his suspension, or at least a statement acknowledging that they are looking into the issue? 

According to Jon Friedman, who teaches at the Stony Brook University School of Journalism, whether Williams gets fired “will depend on two factors: 1) the near-term TV ratings -- if they decline seriously, he won't survive this scandal; and 2) if the social media keep hammering on him, he will lose his credibility.”

One would think losing credibility is pretty tough on a newsman. Meanwhile, the story is getting politicized in a typically ugly way. Those on the right are loving it, thrilled that they can prove that NBC and the “liberal media” are all liars and in the tank for each other. (And Obama, natch.) And my brethren on the left have disappointed me as well, pointing to pieces in the New Yorker about unreliable memory, and cutting him major slack as someone who works in showbiz, not news. 

Media observer Tom Siebert suggests that this is to protect Hillary, who told a story about being under siege after landing in Bosnia that was later shown to be suspect.

What makes a respected, successful person lie like this? Well, obviously, it feels good in the telling, because the dramatic story elicits mad praise and admiration. Secondly, when you are a celebrity, the stories then take on a life of their own, and who are you to dispute it? 

For example, NBC created promo spots for Williams’ 10th anniversary as anchor, boasting about his “integrity,” and including treacly lines like “his battle scars are worn on the inside.” 

One of the ironies is that Williams is so popular and refreshing on the late-night shows because, while endowed with the proper younger-newsman gravitas, he shows himself to be funny and self-deprecating in the off-hours. (And he also shows up to support his daughter Allison, one of the stars of “Girls,” who in this season’s opener had an eye-opening scene involving a love interest attending to her rear parts.)

Rewatching Williams elaborate on the helicopter tale for several minutes on “Letterman” in 2013 is especially disheartening — every one of his peacock feathers is unfurled. And it made me realize that as a suck-up to a certain kind of middle-aged male media peer, Dave has no peers. It becomes mutually glorifying for him in the heroism department, too, I guess. “I have to treat you now with renewed respect,” he told Williams. It made me revisit some of his interviews with Lance Armstrong, who sat there and flat-out lied while Dave treated him reverentially.

This examination of lies vs. heroism is particularly painful in the wake of analyzing the impact of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a culture, we are processing the entire slog for the first time. One of the reasons that the Clint Eastwood-directed film, “American Sniper,” about Chris Kyle, is such a smash at the box office, and resonating powerfully, is that it does allow us to process these issues in a way that’s not all gung-ho war.

That’s why we like revisiting World War II. It was the last “winnable” war, with clear victors and losers. As a country, we still haven’t come to terms with Vietnam; at this point, we can’t even define ISIS; and unfortunately, many of our strategies have  helped create new vacuums for terrorist groups to fill. And certainly, returning vets have not gotten the health services and job opportunities they deserve. 

This is a lot to conflate. We are living in the most cynical age ever, where we can silently think, “Say it ain’t so!” but where corporate stonewalling works. From the outside, so far the NFL has worked on the domestic violence front mostly by creating a beautiful commercial that ran on the Super Bowl.

The truth is that we are a country with big secrets, in desperate search of heroes. And the heroes that the media seeks to embrace are managed and packaged. Real heroes are the ones who do what they do away from the media glare. 

In the end, it just comes down to business: money and ratings. Maybe, eventually, NBC will do something, the way Sony just announced that Amy Pascal is stepping down. In the interim, they are protecting Williams from a different kind of brutal firefight.

36 comments about "Brian Williams And The Fog Of Ratings War".
Check to receive email when comments are posted.
  1. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, February 6, 2015 at 11:24 a.m.

    A disturbing, disheartening stumble by a very likable, relatable news guy. I can't begin to understand why he would put himself in this position, but he has, and it will inevitably damage his career, potentially forcing him to leave NBC. Why?

  2. david marks from self, February 6, 2015 at 11:27 a.m.

    Dynamite piece, Barbara! Williams is an elegant man who is now tarnished, deflated, as it were, and unlike the politicians who hyperbolize their experiences, he’s a journalist, and journalists can’t fall prey to such transgressions. For me, he’s lost his class, his credibility and his verve, and needs to go.

  3. Nina Lentini from MediaPost Communications, February 6, 2015 at 11:34 a.m.

    I maintain that if this was Diane Sawyer, she'd be gone already. And you didn't mention that although Amy Pascal is out at Sony, Scott Rudin remains. What is it about us that we constantly cherchez la femme?!@

  4. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, February 6, 2015 at 11:34 a.m.

    "It's not a lie, if YOU believe it." - George Costanza. Except this case really isn't funny. We're all guilty of telling tall tales of experiences, but when it's central to your core of journalism and accuracy (NBC News still claims to be about journalism, not entertainment), there is no room for embellishment. Unfortunately, it's a deal breaker, not too far off from Jayson Blair at the NY Times. Williams is doing himself no favors by using the same kind of doublespeak (conflation and misremembering) that politicians use all the time.

  5. Walter Sabo from SABO media, February 6, 2015 at 11:36 a.m.

    Brian Williams is already being paid back with his daughter's performance in Peter Pan and knowing she is in anal sex scenes on HBO. Although horrilble, Amy Pascal should not be fired.

  6. Jane Farrell from Freelance, February 6, 2015 at 11:39 a.m.

    Excellent piece. Two things I've learned over the years: 1. If a lie is big enough, it will never occur to most people that it is a lie. 2. If you are a public figure and lie or do wrong, you will be found out. You will always be found out.

    I've always found Williams to be a likable guy, but NBC will have to let him go. It's just too ludicrous for him to remain after this.

  7. Len Stein from Visibility Public Relations, February 6, 2015 at 11:49 a.m.

    Yes,lies and damn lies... How to destroy a personal brand. They always come out in the wash

  8. Cliff Medney from Flightpath, February 6, 2015 at 11:51 a.m.

    Barbara, you're the best!
    Now only the anchors-past and present-from The Daily Show are reliable, believable and "non-ego-able" to watch. Damn, I really liked Brian, i really thought he was real. Now i'm all in and left with "Jon John" and Steven:) What a dumb-bell!

  9. Robert Rosenthal from Rosenthal Heavy Industries, February 6, 2015 at 11:52 a.m.

    Terrific article, Barbara. In the end, he got caught in a lie that he's going to have to live it. Thirty years of reputation brought down by one tall tale. Proving once again...omnia semper vincit veritas.

  10. Tom Scharre from The Hunch Fund, February 6, 2015 at 12:03 p.m.

    ^^ "Media observer Tom Siebert suggests that this is to protect Hillary, who told a story about being under siege after landing in Bosnia that was later shown to be suspect." Shown to be suspect? How about it was an outright lie? Or am I misremembering?

  11. Laura Popper from Laurapoppermdpc, February 6, 2015 at 12:29 p.m.

    Never a pretty sight watching someone crash and burn ( or in this case - not crash and burn and lie about it). Who's going to get the " beg get interview"? Call John Oliver

  12. Edward Shain from EMS Associates, February 6, 2015 at 12:41 p.m.

    Best column yet.

    What's left to add.....and mourn...is the loss of journalism everywhere. When entertainment is offered in lieu of journalism, narrative enhancement is offered in lieu of news.

  13. Jon Sinton from Progressive Agenda, February 6, 2015 at 12:44 p.m.

    Barbara,
    Thanks for this post. It is really insightful. We at Progressive Agenda consulting and and our audio stream, The Progressive Voices Network, are among those on the left who love Brian Williams, but cannot sit quietly and accept his sadly narcissistic self-aggrandizing. By the weekend, we'll have parodies up and running from both The Final Edition and Rocky Mountain Mike.
    Meanwhile, of course Amy Pascal had to be fired. No executive can behave so rashly, so insensitively, so stupidly--in writing, no less--and survive. One needs trust to run an organization like Sony Pictures, and who could possibly trust her now? As for Scott Rudin, he's a producer, not an employee, so it is not for Sony to fire him.

  14. Matthew Schultz from GSP, February 6, 2015 at 1:09 p.m.

    Barbara,

    Well-written.

    Beautifully written, in fact.

    The less savory, but true, thing is that Brian Williams is motivated by money — the crazy-big paycheck he wants to keep receiving.

    NBC cares only about the media money — and could not care less about Brian Williams. He is an interchangeable part.

    The "statements of fact" above , stated, the self-aggrandizing stunts that Williams has been addicted to, for years, might be OK for a TV show host — but not something that a real journalist would, or should, ever consider engaging in. In fact, Williamsesque stunts are something a real journalist would avoid.

    One is either a journalist — period.

    Or one is a clown who does the news — period.

    Brian Williams, long ago, chose the role of the clown.

  15. Jim O'sullivan from na, February 6, 2015 at 1:13 p.m.

    ". . . later shown to be suspect. . ."

    Is that how you and your bretheren on the left say "shown to be an outright lie" when referencing Hillarity's baloney?

    Did you know she was named after the guy who scaled Mount Everest, about a decade before he actually did it? That claim was later shown to be suspect.

  16. Susan Klein from Oculus Marketing, February 6, 2015 at 1:28 p.m.

    Great thought-provoking piece. I am embarrassed to live in an age where broadcast journalism, once a revered profession, is driven by celebrity Q ratings. And between this and his floridly misremembered Katrina reportage, it's time for Williams to back away from the mirror and call a psychotherapist.

  17. Aimee Stern from stern Communications, February 6, 2015 at 1:57 p.m.

    OK so he embellished and made it a better story - doesn't everyone do that? We live in a world with networks that pretend to be news and instead are pure propaganda. Isn't it kind of an old world thing to hold an anchorman to some sort of purity way beyond anything else? Give him a break. He apologized - perhaps without the fawny eyes and sheepishness of a Hugh Grant, but enough already. Leave the man alone. He screwed up - it happens. He won't do it again, he has earned and demonstrated integrity. Let's move on to the next stupid scandal.

  18. Jack Skeels from AgencyAgile, Inc., February 6, 2015 at 2:23 p.m.

    Well-written piece, Barbara! What I liked most is you lament (as I do) the loss of the center of our society to the forces of partisanship. This piece belongs in a policy publication it is so well done. Awesome!

  19. Elaine Underwood from Here & Now PR, February 6, 2015 at 2:31 p.m.

    Barbara, your comments about his appearance on the Letterman Show are particularly on point. The mutual admiration between the two regarding this incident further shattered what little credibility either had with me. (I was already suspect about NBC's news operation from the Today Show on up.)

  20. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 6, 2015 at 3:22 p.m.

    Ordinary people are fired for less (don't cry for them, Argentina), sometimes for no reason at all - right to work laws mean you can be fired at any time with no reason that must be explained by your employer. As enjoyable a personality he is, that is not what he says he is, a reporter, who takes the pictures, not be in them. Perhaps, this gives way to way not to make journalists personalities to appear to other shows while working as a journalist for them to become the story. We all pay a price for a certain type of freedom of the press. Freedom of any kind is not free. Nothing is free. He took a shot and missed. He'll write a book and so on and so forth. His life is not over. No doubt there are plenty of capable people waiting in the wings. And Barbara, there is no one like you with your insight and ability to bring out the context of the content.

  21. Laura Daly from MediaPost, February 6, 2015 at 3:27 p.m.

    Barbara, great take on the situation. Was he not there with an NBC crew? What did they have to say? This really is truthiness in action. Now, people are questioning his reporting of Katrina. Reminds me Aaron's speech in Broadcast News:
    "...He will be attractive! He'll be nice and helpful. He'll get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation. He'll never do an evil thing! He'll never deliberately hurt a living thing... he will just bit by little bit lower our standards where they are important. Just a tiny little bit...."

  22. Dave Migdal from Migdal-Underwood Consulting, February 6, 2015 at 3:48 p.m.

    Barbara--This a journalistic masterpiece. Maybe there is hope for long-form journalism after all. Here's hoping...
    As for Williams and his "misremembering", maybe there's a spot for him on "Anchorman 3"

  23. George Parker from Parker Consultants, February 6, 2015 at 6:29 p.m.

    My problem with the network "news" broadcasts is that they contain little actual news. Without the ads, you are left with 22 minutes of content, most of which could run in "People" magazine. And there's always a medical item pimping some new pharmaceutical product aimed at the overwhelmingly geriatric audience, who are bombarded with prescription drug ads throughout the program. I remember one news item recommending that women should not just rely on mammograms for advance warning of breast cancer, they should get an MRI scan. This was on NBC World News Tonight. They failed to mention that NBC's parent company, GE, is the world's largest manufacturer of MRI scanners. As for Mr. Williams and his ilk, "News Anchor" is a euphemism for "News Presenter." Little reporting is involved. You may as well watch the bimbos on Fox, but only if you use ear plugs. I'll stick with PBS, Vice and Al Jezera.
    Cheers/George "AdScam" Parker

  24. Melanie Howard from self employed, February 6, 2015 at 6:42 p.m.

    My father is a retired combat veteran. I am a journalist. One of us has actually experienced the "fog of war". Guess which? I can see if you'd been shot down in a helicopter and PTSD caused you to imagine you hadn't, but not the other way around. There is no doubt this was a purposeful fabrication, and as Ms. Lippert so wisely points out, how the network responds will be based on money and ratings, not right and wrong.

  25. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, February 6, 2015 at 9:26 p.m.

    The “Vast Wasteland” has become the “Wretched Reality” at NBC News. For shame, Comcast & NBC Universal!

    When you take two of this week’s Variety headlines together you understand how & why Comcast is destroying NBC News: 1) “Brian Williams Raps Snoop Dogg’s ‘Who Am I’ on ‘The Tonight Show’ – Variety (02.03.15) & 2) “NBC’s Brian Williams Admits He Told False Story About Iraq Expedition” – Variety (02.04.15). There are three people who need to take responsibility and action on this matter: 1) Brian Williams (NBC Slightly (sic) News Anchor), 2) Pat Fili-Krushel (Chairman of NBCUniversal News Group) & 3) Deborah Mary Turness President of NBC News).

    This is more than a disgrace. It is a breach of journalistic integrity and personal ethics.

    While there are many good people and fine journalists still within NBC News, the current management team is doing its best to drive the need to operate in “the public interest, convenience and necessity” into the graves of broadcast and journalistic heroes & heroines.

    Further, Comcast has transformed NBC News into something far worse than the “vast wasteland” that Newton Minow had foreshadowed for broadcast television in 1961; it's now a wretched mess called NBC-TV.

    While one hopes corrective steps can be taken now that have lasting beneficial effects, the pimping, procuring, pandering, prostitution and self-destruction of NBC News seems to be leading to a horrendous national shame and calamity – especially when you consider that there are journalists that have been killed and died to bring us the hard and dangerous truth. Not to mention the US Service Men & Women who really put themselves in harm's way for our safety & protection.

    If you don’t believe this critical assessment, just watch MSNBC. With few exceptions (i.e., Rachel Maddow) there is a will to self-destruct on a level that constitutes a public insult, a national shame and a true embarrassment to anyone who believes in the necessity for a Fourth Estate in an American Democracy – a press that can be trusted without reservation or hesitation.

    Comcast, it appears, has turned it’s best News Anchor into its worst Make-up Artist.

    May the truth set us free of this awful mess that is NBC News 2015.

    PS NBC News now plans to investigate itself. So the problem has become the solution. Clever ... and profoundly disappointing yet again!

  26. Feminista Fan from The Past, Present and Future, February 7, 2015 at 9:50 a.m.

    "The truth is that we are a country with big secrets, in desperate search of heroes. And the heroes that the media seeks to embrace are managed and packaged. Real heroes are the ones who do what they do away from the media glare". F---ing Brilliant!!!!

  27. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, February 7, 2015 at 10:51 a.m.

    Great column. Maybe your best. Although column may not be the right word.

  28. Tom Messner from BONACCOLTA MESSNER, February 7, 2015 at 10:54 a.m.

    As for ratings, replace him with Lester Holt and Rachel Maddow and possibly a third, Chris Cuomo. I would even watch it for a while or DVR it to speed through the Pharma spots.

  29. Adrian Lichter from Adrian Lichter, Inc., February 7, 2015 at 2:41 p.m.

    Since we are at war all over the Middle East, Williams--almost daily--posts reports from Richard Engle, who has been shot at on camera, has been kidnapped for a week, and often walks down the world's most dangerous streets delivering live reports. That's the kind of wartime journalism we got from Ed Murrow on the London rooftops during the blitz and other correspondents on bombing runs over German-held territory. Now we get stories of (maybe) being shot down, and the story is repeated over and over. Something wrong here.

  30. Ruth Thomas from Second helping, February 7, 2015 at 4:21 p.m.

    Americans have the attention span of a 18 month old child...tomorrow there will be a polar vortex, Kim Kardashian cut her hair short, Sarah Palin will say something brilliant, ISIS will do something somewhere, people will realize that measles really are bad...then, without having to say ooops, Brian's memory problem will be just another distant memory... BP oil spill- forgotten, Japan's nuclear meltdown- forgotten, kidnapped girls in Africa-forgotten....even the recent massacre in Paris is dimming from people's minds....just sit and read the news Brian, no one will remember by next Thursaday

  31. Johanna Skilling from The Strategy Accelerator, February 7, 2015 at 6:02 p.m.

    Barbara, love your insight, as always. Two thoughts to add to the discussion:

    I'm struck by Williams' need to heighten his profile -- and that his actual accomplishments weren't satisfying enough. In the helicopter directly behind the one that crashed? Still brave, still on the scene. I'm troubled by the urgency to claim more - which goes beyond "misremembering" etc.

    Second, advertisers will also have their say: curious to see who sticks with him in the belief that this too shall pass, along with our fleeting attention.

  32. Jim English from The Met Museum, February 8, 2015 at 12:08 a.m.

    Thanks Barbara, Gave up on network news shows a while back. Excuse me if I am a bit cynical, but Williams's comments may be no less "truthful" than the ads of the shows' big pharma sponsors.

  33. Nicholas Schiavone from Nicholas P. Schiavone, LLC, February 8, 2015 at 6:14 p.m.

    Of goats and dogs ... the Brian Williams "situation"
    https://t.co/qDaA1qSCjE

  34. Sharon O'Connell from Green Topaz Productions, February 9, 2015 at 3 p.m.

    Great piece, Barbara. Williams bottom-line lost me with “mistake I would have never chosen to make.” Oddly though, there is something 'non-deliberate' in his lies. Some other non-purposed fallibility that is at total unacceptable odds with his work. The only news person who somehow crossed over between celeb/entertainment and news. But fallen he is. And I feel genuinely badly about his fall. It fascinates and saddens at the same time.

  35. Ivy Baer Sherman from Vintage Magazine, February 10, 2015 at 9:13 a.m.

    Barbara, Excellent long-form take on Brian Williams. Over the years I have always gravitated to NBC's nightly news -- Tom Brokaw's aura has kept me there despite the growing cloy-i-ness of Williams. With the news ever more terrifying, Williams' sign-off -- hope to see you right back here tomorrow -- delivered as if it were a 1950s' serving of mac & cheese -- offers a plate-full of comfort. As is the case these days -- we already have the day's news from sources we have curated and "trust." Turning on "the news, " on a network channel, at 6:30 pm is really like catching a Leave It To Beaver rerun -- nostalgia with a "Gosh, Wally" feel- good ending.
    The particular irony in the Williams case -- the anchor who has become too entertaining-- is that we have come to trust in entertainment news anchors (Stewart et al) for that longed-for serving of the unadulterated truth.

  36. Bob Paine from The Bob Paine Group, February 12, 2015 at 6:16 p.m.

    This whole episode is so sad. I've been watching Brian Williams deliver the news for 20 years (anyone else remember the one hour newscasts every night on MSNBC) and I've always found him to be a fair and decent presenter. As a conservative I can smell the left wing media (did Chris Jansing just walk in the room?) and never once considered Brian a prejudiced reporter. In fact, I often remember when he and Tom Brokaw went to NBC management and told them that their work on MSNBC (when paired with Chris Roberts and others) during conventions was harming the NBC brand. I feel badly because a person I have always considered a "friend" has made a terrible mistake and there's nothing I can do about it.

Next story loading loading..