How NBC anchor sank in disciplinary steps over Iraq untruths
Star newsreader Brian Williams didn’t count on the power of other people’s memories to counter his widely covered mis-statements on his Iraq experience
He’s held a senior and influential position in the media for many years – but this week, the hugely popular US news anchor Brian Williams fell from grace.
NBC’s star newsreader is to all intents and purposes a celebrity. Working in a role that allowed him to regularly appear on chat shows, he was widely respected and very much a US household name. One story he recently told about his work was that during the Iraq war more than 10 years ago, the helicopter he was travelling in was shot down. But he was forced to apologise when others who were present at the time wrote posts on Facebook that questioned his story.
Flight engineer Lance Reynolds, commented: “I don't remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened.” A few days after this came out, Williams spoke on air saying: “I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago … I want to apologise. I said I was travelling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft.”
The news anchor put his mistake in not remembering whether he’d been shot down or not down to a “fog of memory”.
Soon after the apology, NBC announced that Williams had been suspended for six months without pay – describing his actions as “inexcusable”. NBC News President Deborah Turness was quoted as saying that what he had done was “wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position”. NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke, meanwhile, followed up by saying that he had “jeopardised the trust [that] millions of Americans place in NBC News”.
The US news market is intensely competitive, and NBC has managed to be the top-rated prime-time news programme for a number of years. Now that their star anchor has fallen from 23rd to a withering 835th on a list of the most trusted people in the country, according to Celebrity DBI, it is possible that the network as a whole will suffer too.
Williams did apologise on air – and in a relatively short space of time, NBC’s senior management handed him a public and fairly severe punishment. The chances are that we will see Williams back on TV in one form or another but, in future, it’s possible his audience won’t be able to trust that he’s reporting the news, rather than making it up.
In this case, NBC has chosen hard discipline for its star, rather than soft treatment for its star performer. Future Pinocchios beware.
Will Edwards is managing director of media training consultancy Bluewood Training.
For more thoughts on ethical conduct in the workplace, download CMI’s recent report The Moral DNA of Performance.