Tonight will not be the first time that NBC Evening News goes on the air without Brian Williams at the desk. The man takes vacations, after all. But it will be the first night without him since he announced that he would be stepping aside while they dealt with the chopper whopper situation. This might drag on longer than he originally forecast, since he has also cancelled his 22nd scheduled appearance on David Letterman’s show. Of course, it’s still possible that Williams will return as if nothing has happened after he gives things a week or so to cool down. (The fact that NBC isn’t even doing an investigation could hint at this being the case.) But the possibility still exists that Williams could actually be gone.
If so, was this a good outcome for the rest of the country? I had some time to reflect on this over the weekend and I’m not so sure this is a cut and dried story. The first question I would put forward is to ask precisely what the nature of Williams’ crime was. Obviously it’s not the same thing as Dan Rather’s fake but accurate Bush documents story. Even the Katrina story (which is also under scrutiny) didn’t seem to run into the area of falsifying the facts of the flood and the response, but just colorful additions to what he witnessed. The reports about the actual news on the ground which he sent back didn’t seem to be in question in Iraq.
In the end, Williams’ lies seem to be more along the lines of your crazy, drunken Uncle Mel who shows up for holiday dinners and tells vastly expanded fishing tales. Now, I fully understand that the preceding analogy breaks down very quickly. Uncle Mel is only speaking to a tiny audience, all of whom probably know that he was sneaking a few shots of gin before lunch was even served, and nobody is going to base any important decisions on the accuracy of Mel’s recounting of his adventures. Brian Williams reports the news, and if he was being dishonest about his own puffed up history, it calls into question the rest of his reporting. I get it.
I suppose what I’m really getting at here is more a question of why we seem to take such particular glee in seeing somebody of Williams’ stature being brought down. I’m not innocent of this by any means. I had more than my fair share of entries in the #BrianWilliamsMisremembers hashtag game on Twitter. (Probably the share of several other people as well, to be honest.) But we seem to really pile on to a story like this and are ready to raise a victory flag if Williams is chased off the field of play. It just gives me pause and makes me wonder if the whole thing isn’t a bit mean spirited or a symptom of some inner desire to see those who make it to the top be taught a lesson and brought down to the level of the rest of us.
It’s not as if this really changes anything. If the anchor exits stage left, he’ll just be replaced by another professional from the same organization, subject to the same human failings as any of the rest of us. The evening news won’t go off the air. But by the same token, I suppose it will serve as a cautionary tale for everyone else in the business to make sure they keep their ducks in a row.
I don’t watch the network news, so I’m not sure if I’ve actually ever seen Brian Williams reading the news. But I have seen clips of many of his appearances on Letterman, Leno and the Daily Show. I enjoyed his ability to poke fun at his own stodgy, stuffed suit newsman persona. He engages in a lot of self-deprecating skits which others in his field would view as beneath them. In short, he seems to be able to laugh at himself and have some fun. I thought it spoke well of him.
I’m not excusing what Williams did in any fashion. And if he falls, he clearly brought it on himself. I suppose all I’m saying here is that the mistakes Brian Williams made are more along the lines of self aggrandizement than some nefarious effort to hide or distort the actual news. It’s a human trait which more of us can likely relate to than other crimes, and I guess I’m just feeling a bit of sympathy for him this morning.