With Williams Suspended, The World Awaits The Return Of 'Real News'

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Feb 11, 2015 9:00 PM
With Williams Suspended, The World Awaits The Return Of 'Real News'

As we all heard last night, NBC News has suspended Brian Williams for six months with no pay. It’s the “end of real news,” as Drudge facetiously noted. But why not fire Williams? Poynter noted that it gives the network some breathing room–and allows the network to search for new talent:

A suspension gives the network time to assess the damage Williams has done to his credibility. It also gives the network time to see if possible successors, like Lester Holt, can attract enough viewers to keep NBC from slipping out of first place in the evening news race. If not, NBC can rotate in other temporary replacements until they find a good fit.

Then, in mid-August, when TV news viewership is at its lowest, Williams could come back to work. There would be time to react if there is audience blowback before the fall season and the November ratings period.

These temporary jobs are not without precedent. CBS moved beloved Bob Schieffer into the anchor chair Dan Rather vacated in 2005 amid controversy stemming from a report on George Bush’s military record. Schieffer was replaced by Katie Couric. Couric is gone from CBS; Schieffer remains. But even with Schieffer as a temporary replacement, CBS added more than 100,000 viewers. Holt could take some lessons from that.

Dylan Byers over at Politico agreed, but noted that Williams is probably not coming back, unless  a ratings disaster strikes in his absence–or if there's a prolonged apology tour:

Brian Williams probably isn't coming back. Consider the next six months an audition for Lester Holt, the weekend anchor who will now substitute for Williams in his "absence." Meanwhile, the execs at Comcast/NBC will be hard at work considering an alternative replacement if Holt can't sustain the ratings. Possible anchors include both Today show co-hosts Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie.

There are two scenarios in which Williams returns: One, he pulls off a stunning apology tour and wins back the favors of the nation. Two, 'Nightly' tanks so bad under its new host(s) that NBC is forced to bring Williams back in a last-ditch effort. I wouldn't place my money on a Williams' return, but you can never underestimate the power of the redemption narrative, especially in this country.

Travis Tritten at Stars and Stripes, who broke the story that Williams made false claims about his Iraq War exploits, said he took “no satisfaction” in the news that Williams was suspended; he just wanted the embattled NBC anchor to correct the record.

In the meantime, Williams’ record is still being assessed. Eliana Johnson asked if Williams lied to Tim Russert back in 2005, just months after he took the helm as NBC’s Nightly News anchor. Here’s Williams’ account:

Low and slow,’ remember those words. Because I was traveling with retired four-star General Wayne Downing, who was our military adviser. There is a bubble window in the wall of a Chinook helicopter made of Plexiglas, really so you can stick your head out and look below the helicopter and yet still be in an enclosed environment. General Downing, who knows a thing or two about this, looked out that window and said, `This is hot,’ meaning it was full of enemy. It was full of unpoliced Iraqis. He might have used one or two other choice words there, but I’ll leave it at hot, Tim. It was no more than 120 seconds later that the helicopter in front of us was hit. A pickup truck stopped on the road, pulled a tarp back; a guy got up, fired an RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. These were farmers, or so they seemed. And it beautifully pierced the tail rotor of the Chinook in front of us.

I believe it was our captain who took a small arms–an AK-47 round right through the earlobe, Purple Heart. We set down quickly. We dropped our loads. The helicopter goes up when it releases that much tonnage, but then we sat down on the deck hard and fast, from low and slow to hard and fast. We were assessing the damage on the ground, realizing we had landed in a hot zone–There were Iraqis in the neighborhood–wondering what we were going to do when we heard a distinctive sound. Once you’ve heard a Bradley, there’s a kind of mechanical metal-on-sand whining and grinding, and out from the hatch popped the head of this fairly new West Point cadet turned first lieutenant named Eric Nye, who, recognizing we were in trouble, dispatched his armored mechanized platoon, and they surrounded us for three days.

Oh, and then the famous sandstorm moved in. The air turned orange. We were grounded. We watched the war play out over our heads. We watched those multiple rocket launchers in the night sky. We watched the military supply line in the distance. It was an amazing seat to have for the war, but for the following problem. My network and my family had no idea where I was. We didn’t bring a satellite phone that day. We had no communications. We couldn’t break radio silence because we were in Iraqi-held territory. But, again, when you live to tell about it, you can someday do the Tim Russert show on CNBC.

As Johnson noted, there are some problems with this account:

The captain of Williams’s helicopter Chris Simeone, has stepped forward with an article in the New York Post to say that he was neither struck by enemy fire nor received a Purple Heart. “I do not have a Purple Heart, and my ears are just fine,” Simeone said. Allan Kelly, an Army pilot also aboard Williams’s helicopter, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune the same thing: that their chopper did not come under enemy fire.

Regardless, Williams is gone, but not before The New York Times published a piece pondering if the besieged anchor was a victim of false memory; no, this isn’t a joke:

“You’ve got all these people saying the guy’s a liar and convicting him of deliberate deception without considering an alternative hypothesis — that he developed a false memory,” said Elizabeth Loftus, a leading memory researcher and a professor of law and cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. “It’s a teaching moment, and a chance to really try to get information out there about the malleable nature of memory.”

The left-leaning Think Progress also published a piece about the science of “misremembering.”

I wish Brian Williams a happy six-month (unpaid) vacation.

UPDATE: Brian Williams' name has been removed from NBC Nightly News

UPDATE II: Williams ironically featured in a new documentary about lying.

UPDATE III: NBC News fact-checking project on Williams' claims will be finished "sooner rather than later."