This could be Brian Williams’ greatest triumph since he battled those gangs for control of the Ritz-Carlton in chest-high waters during Hurricane Katrina while waiting for his friends in SEAL Team 6 to arrive. Despite the multiple instances of fabulism uncovered in the past couple of weeks, a majority of Americans still think NBC News should restore him to his job as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News after his suspension, because … er, what? CNN, which has given the scandal plenty of coverage, took the poll:
A new CNN/ORC poll shows a sharp divide in the country’s reactions to Brian Williams’ six-month suspension from “NBC Nightly News.”
A slim majority, 52% of respondents, said NBC News should allow Williams to return to his anchor chair. But 40% said the network should not. …
Only 8% of respondents said they had no opinion on the matter, perhaps reflecting the widespread coverage of Williams’ February 4 apology (for exaggerating his involvement in a 2003 Iraq War mission) and the media’s subsequent scrutiny of other stories he has told.
It’s not the first poll to suggest that Williams’ stock hasn’t collapsed with his audience. Magid Associates, which has done some work in the past for NBC Universal but not NBC News, found that 48% thought Williams could restore his credibility, while only 30% thought it had been irretrievably destroyed. Almost everyone polled knew about the fabulism, at least of his 2003 experience in Iraq, so it’s not a matter of a lack of information. Support for the potential for redemption was strongest among those who watch nightly news broadcasts every day — 58%, not far from CNN’s results, although the question got asked a little differently in the two polls.
Brian Stelter wonders whether the 40% opposed to the move would be a significant issue for NBC News. Probably not, since NBC Nightly News doesn’t get anywhere near 40% of the overall television audience, even on its best evenings. They’d probably be happy with getting even half of the 52% who think he’d be able to come back in the position as regular viewers.
The bigger problem, as Stelter himself notes, is that Lester Holt may make the question moot. Holt won his first week in the chair, beating ABC’s David Muir four out of five nights outright and all five nights in the 18-49 demo. The gap narrowed from Williams’ earlier ratings, by a substantial amount (44%), but Holt just started with this audience, too. If he improves over the next few months, NBC would have a very difficult time replacing him for someone suspended for lying in public about his exploits, and the most blatant of these — the SEAL Team 6 chopper whopper — has just been exposed as an outright lie rather than an embellishment. If it’s not moving the needle at this point, though, then NBC clearly has an opening for Williams if Holt implodes.
Should NBC allow Williams a shot at redemption? Jazz wrote earlier that Williams’ peccadilloes were personal rather than professional, quoting S. E. Cupp’s argument that the fabulism didn’t get into Williams’ reporting:
It’s also important that, as far as we know, Williams’ actual reporting – what he said on television as a journalist while covering a story and not what he said to interviewers – has not come into question. As Tom Bettag, a producer who worked with Williams at NBC said, “his insistence on fact-checking approached being a pain in the butt.”
In the initial NBC broadcast where he described his 2003 Iraq reporting mission, embattled NBC anchor Brian Williams falsely claimed that “we saw the guy . . . [who] put a round through the back of a chopper,” which he further and incorrectly claimed was “the Chinook [helicopter] in front of us.”
Williams filed three reports from Kuwait for NBC News on March 26, 2003. The first was a live broadcast at noon Eastern, the second at 6:30 pm Eastern on the NBC Nightly News, and the third later that night in prime time on NBC Dateline.
A review of all three transcripts (obtained from Nexis courtesy of MRC) shows that as the day wore on, Williams’s claims, and in particular the claim that he saw the guy who fired the RPG that downed the chopper “in front of us,” became less expansive. …
The Nexis transcript of that live noon interview with Tom Brokaw on NBC News shows that Williams said he saw an event that military eyewitnesses confirm he did not see:
Tom, I know you remember Somalia all too well, those hopped up pickup trucks, some of them with 50 caliber machine guns on the back. In our case, it was a rocket-propelled grenade underneath a tarp. We saw the guy. We flew over a bridge. He waved to the lead pilot very kindly. With that someone else removed the tarp, stood up, and put a round through the back of a chopper missing the rear rotor by four or five feet.
“We saw the guy.” That was the report that first incensed the soldiers who accompanied Williams, and the report they attempted to get NBC to retract for a dozen years. Most of the rest of Williams’ fabulism didn’t make it onto NBC Nightly News, it’s true, but it’s not as if none of it did.
The question really isn’t about forgiving Williams as it is unringing a bell that has been repeatedly pealed over the last couple of weeks. To put it another way, it’s not personal — it’s business. Does a news reader have to have a certain amount of credibility to effectively do his or her job? Does Williams need to perform to a higher standard as managing editor? I’d say yes to both. If NBC wants to put him back into both positions and their audience supports the decision, then the answer to those questions would be no — but then network news (or at least NBC News) becomes primarily about entertainment rather than credible dissemination of information. Frankly, though, there are much better ways to be entertained.