Indecision may not be the best quality in a columnist, but in the case of NBC News anchor Brian Williams, that’s what I find in myself: I doubt that the six-month suspension the network announced Tuesday night is enough, and I think he needs to step down.
My hesitation over asserting that Williams cannot continue in the anchor chair has two components. The first is simple human compassion. Williams seems like a nice guy, with an endearing capacity for poking fun at himself. Those who are enjoying his predicament must be more certain about their own infallibility than I am about mine. Kicking people when they’re up is a lot more sporting than when they’re in a fetal crouch. A six-month suspension is pretty severe.
The second, which gives me far more pause and necessitates the antiquated practice of trial before sentencing, is the essential mystery of memory. We may sincerely believe what did not actually happen.
For years my friend Amanda Bennett told the story of attending the wrong wedding, only to realize her mistake when a bride she didn’t know walked down the aisle. One day Amanda recounted this tale, only to be informed, by the friend to whom the wedding escapade had actually happened , that it wasn’t her story at all. Amanda had somehow appropriated it as her own. It was too good not to retell.
Amanda is smart and tough and an experienced journalist — a former big-city newspaper editor. Her reporting in this instance was sincere but faulty, in the service not of self-promotion but of self-deprecation.
Science supports this possibility. False memories take root. Fragments of experience recombine and emerge as falsehoods — not deliberate lies but untrue nonetheless. This is why the entire context matters so much in Williams’s case: Is his tale of being in a helicopter under fire another example of shifting, faulty memory, or is it part of a pattern of puffery, including Hurricane Katrina? The latter would undercut the likelihood that the helicopter story was a moment of memory gone haywire.
Assume, though, that the evidence tends in the direction of deliberate misstatement. How should we think about the appropriate consequence? Not every journalistic transgression deserves the career equivalent of a death penalty. A single episode of plagiarism, for example, should be judged in the context of an entire career — punished severely but, in certain cases, with a sanction short of dismisssal.
In Williams’s case, some thoughtful observers argued that his transgression did not rise to the level of firing (or resignation) because it did not go to the essence of his job — “not a fundamental part of his primary responsibilities,” as the New York Times’ David Carr put it.
This analysis misperceives the role of news anchor — as NBC itself recognized: “As Managing Editor and Anchor of ‘Nightly News,’ Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times,” Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, said in a statement.
To the extent that the job is more than merely reading words off a teleprompter, it is to be the institutional voice of trust and reason, reassuring in a crisis, the ultimate reliable narrator. When issues of trustworthiness become a distraction, the anchor loses his credibility, and therefore his perch.
Some discussion of Williams’s fate has involved his central role at NBC and whether the network could “afford” to lose its most recognizable franchise. This is the network version of “too big to fail” — that Williams is too important to can. I see it the opposite way: Williams’s elevated status subjects him to a higher standard of behavior, and more rigorous consequences. The face of NBC News cannot afford to be so scarred.
Thinking about Williams requires grappling with the consequence of Hillary Clinton’s untrue story of coming under sniper fire in Bosnia. If I am correct in concluding that Williams should not continue in the anchor role at NBC, must I then believe that Clinton is unqualified to be president? If I distinguish between the two, is that because of pro-Clinton, pro-Democrat bias? Would I judge more harshly were a Republican candidate involved?
Here, I can only offer my best effort to analyze the two cases objectively. Clinton’s sniper-fire statement is, no doubt, a blot on her record. It is not a disqualifying blot. Journalists come to the job with only their credibility to offer. We expect less from politicians in terms of total truth-telling. Spin is part of the business model. You could legitimately decide that Clinton’s sniper story is disqualifying, but you must then deal with Ronald Reagan witnessing the liberation of Nazi death camps.
Either way, the untenable nature of Williams’s position becomes even clearer. Imagine that Clinton’s sniper story becomes a campaign issue. How does Williams, in the anchor chair, comfortably report that news, even after six months away?