Opinion on Williams' Reinstatement| College of Communication & Information | Opinion on Williams' Reinstatement

OPINION: If Brian Williams is not “worthy” of the anchor chair on Nightly News, how is he suitable for this new role at MSNBC?

Director of Kent State University Media Law Center for Ethics and Access Shares Views on Brian Williams' Reinstatement
Director of Kent State University Media Law Center for Ethics and Access Shares Views on Brian Williams' Reinstatement

There’s no sense piling on former NBC News anchor Brian Williams, even as he has been effectively demoted from the network’s Nightly News to its MSNBC cable operation. He has said the last few months have been “torture.”

What’s difficult to understand is NBC’s decision to reinstate Williams on cable news starting in August.

Williams took himself off the Nightly News program that bore his name and was suspended by NBC in February after embellishing his role in one (and possibly more) high-profile stories that he covered.  His was reportedly a stunning revelation and an embarrassment for NBC Universal, the broadcast network’s parent company.  On Thursday, after four months of apparent negotiations, NBC said Williams would return, joining MSNBC to report or announce breaking news. Lester Holt, who has been filling the anchor chair at Nightly News since Williams was suspended, now has that job full-time.

The New York Times and other media have pointed out the immediate inconsistency: If Williams is not “worthy” of the anchor chair on Nightly News, how is he suitable for this new role at MSNBC? Are journalism ethics and credibility less important on cable? Will Williams be more believable with MSNBC’s relatively smaller audience than with the larger number of viewers he reached on the network show.

In journalism, credibility is paramount. Colleagues and managers take seriously anything that tarnishes a journalist’s integrity or damages a media organization. When NBC suspended Williams it sent a message to viewers and news consumers that it considered his transgressions severe. But apparently not severe enough to matter to cable news audiences.

Could the reason NBC is bringing Williams back to television have to do with economics? Several national reporters (again the New York Times, plus the Baltimore Sun, Fox News and others) have pointed out that Williams signed a five-year, multimillion-dollar contract just before his problems arose last winter.  Another economic issue is whether a news show with Williams at the helm could command the necessary advertising dollars to be competitive.

The journalism business needs money in the form of advertising and sales to survive. The journalism that is a public trust often is at odds with business realities.  For consumers of journalism, the conflict between business and credibility is significant. Does NBC’s decision to reinstate Williams disregard its reputation among its audience?

Another piece of the Williams puzzle also raises questions. When Williams first admitted he had exaggerated his involvement in a story about riding in a helicopter during the Iraq war, NBC launched an investigation. Williams knows what the internal investigation says. He told Matt Lauer of NBC’s TODAY show (a convenient exclusive for the network) that what happened in the past has been identified and dealt with. He did not quite admit to multiple embellishments, saying: “… I said things that were wrong. One is too much. Any number north of zero is too many.”

Neither NBC nor Williams has released the findings of the investigation. Do those findings matter to the viewing public?

Brian Williams is an accomplished reporter who (in the TODAY interview) seems contrite and eager to reestablish his professional reputation. I believe him when he says he takes responsibility for what happened and is sorry. Still, I’d like to know what motivates the corporate decision because journalism ethics matter. NBC’s CEO said the company believes in second chances, which is admirable, but NBC has offered little explanation for its decision and has made no apologies.

POSTED: Tuesday, June 23, 2015 - 4:22pm
UPDATED: Friday, June 26, 2015 - 7:22am
WRITTEN BY:
Jan Leach, director of the Media Law Center for Ethics and Access