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COLUMN-Will Brian Williams keep his job? One key factor that will help decide.
February 9, 2015 / 9:33 PM / 3 years ago

COLUMN-Will Brian Williams keep his job? One key factor that will help decide.

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Neal Gabler

Feb 9 (Reuters) - Brian Williams, the flailing NBC News anchor, has dug himself into a hole. NBC has opened an internal investigation into his repeated false claims over the years that he was shot at during a 2003 helicopter ride when covering the war in Iraq. Now Williams, who has suspended himself, is apologizing, by saying he conflated a helicopter that was shot at with his own, which wasn't. That is a tough hole to climb out of. Whether he can do it is likely to depend on whether the public sees him as a journalist or as a celebrity.

The public generally cuts celebrities a break when they misbehave because we are all engaged in a kind of narrative collaboration with celebrities - and cutting them breaks is part of the deal. Celebrities give us their lives, and we raise them up, tear them down and raise them up again.

This is actually a form of intimacy - a way of documenting our connection to celebrity. But it is also a way of documenting their dependence on us. By making them and breaking them, we show that our collaboration is our power.

As a news anchor, Williams is a celebrity. But he is not quite like other celebrities. That is because he is also a journalist, and we place journalists in a different strata of celebrity. Journalists are regarded as authoritative. They convey the truth. We even have expectations of their behavior and demeanor, which is supposed to be dignified.

We are supposed to trust them, and we generally do. In fact, ironic as it may now sound, NBC has been running an ad that touts Williams' trustworthiness.

It follows that when journalists lose the public trust, they lose us - and there are typically no second acts for them. Think of Dan Rather, who lost trust for using unverified documents questioning President George W. Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam War. Rather lost the CBS News anchor chair and has been consigned to cable ever since. Or CBS correspondent Lara Logan, who peddled a bogus report on Benghazi, and who has lost her luster. Having a bit of trust for a journalist is like the pope being a little bit Catholic. It doesn't parse.

But Williams isn't a typical journalist. He had actively cultivated a very different kind of persona from that of the oracle favored by his anchor forebears. You could call it "The Tim Russert Syndrome."

Russert, the late host of NBC's "Meet the Press" who died suddenly in 2008, went to great lengths to show that he was an Everyman and not a multi-millionaire TV personality. His Buffalo, New York, upbringing, his constant invocation of his working-class father "Big Russ," his own girth and blue-collar style all fed the idea that he was one of us.

If we trusted him, it wasn't because of his journalistic bona fides. It was because he was a big, bearish, down-to-earth, regular Joe with whom we could identify.

Russert was considered a deity at NBC, and he became a model for other reporters there, including Williams. Though attractive and always sharply dressed, Williams is no Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw - or even Rather. Like Russert, he was keen to develop a persona as an accessible fellow and regular Joe.

Williams hosted "Saturday Night Live," he slow jammed the news on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," appeared on "The Daily Show" and "Late Show with David Letterman." He poked fun at himself and the whole stiff anchorman aura. He invoked his New Jersey roots. He even did a feature on his parents, two salts of the earth, which could have been ripped right out of the Russert playbook.

And, like Russert, if we trusted Williams, it was because we felt he was honest and decent and just one of the guys - not necessarily because he was a world-class reporter.

Even his embellishment of his helicopter landing in the early years of the war in Iraq may not have been completely about self-aggrandizement, as some critics have accused. It may have been a strained attempt to be one of the veterans he so clearly admires - and in whose brotherhood he so wants to be.

He wasn't playing the dashing reporter under fire. He was playing exactly the opposite - the journalistic grunt who was saved by an Army grunt. After all, the whole story was predicated on the bond Williams felt for the sergeant who tended to his TV crew. They were all one happy family of ordinary Americans.

That leads to the second act. If his fabulism had just been journalistic malfeasance - or, more bluntly, lying - Williams almost certainly wouldn't be accorded one. He would be sullied forever and would probably follow Rather down the cable rabbit hole, no matter how much trust he had garnered before the incident.

But if his tale is perceived by the public as a celebrity's mistake - a bit of exaggeration either to seem bigger than he was or smaller than he was - he is likely to get that celebrity break and forgiveness.

It is a difficult dilemma for him and for NBC, a respected news organization. Either the public dismisses Williams' journalistic credentials and saves his career because he is, really, just a celebrity. Or it holds him to journalistic standards and expels him because he is a reporter.

Journalist or celebrity - the public will render its verdict. And give him a second act or not. (Neal Gabler)

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