Are We to Blame for Brian Williams?

Brian Williams

Pre-recorded and edited, the Today Show aired Matt Lauer’s interview with Brian Williams on Friday morning. I heard the promo for it as I sat at the vanity, putting on make-up. I left for work before the segment aired and made a note to self to watch the segment later. I was certain that the timing was deliberate—the Friday before a summer weekend, designed to get it done and to have people largely forget about it over the course of the weekend. Much as I sat at the vanity and put on make-up to cover my mottled skin, NBC was attempting to cover Williams’ vanity in the best possible veneer.

I watched the segment online over my Saturday morning coffee and nearly clicked it off when Williams described his exile of the past five months as “torture.” Really, Brian? Torture is what captives endure at the hands of ISIL. Torture is what the parents of the children who died at Sandy Hook endure as they watch our country—with the highest incidence of gun homicides of any civilized country—refuse to pass laws to ensure that their children haven’t died in vain. Torture is what the nine African-Americans must have endured when they realized that the white visitor to their Bible study intended to kill them.

Torture, Brian? In the context of your once charmed life, I’m sure it must seem so, I thought.

And then, in a moment of clarity, I realized that I am, in part, responsible for what Brian Williams described in his interview with Matt Lauer as a moment when his ego took control. My liberal heart belonged to Brian Williams. He was emotional, he was funny, he was talented and, I thought, principled. I helped him soar to the top of the ratings on NBC Nightly News.

Williams will be replaced by weekend anchor Lester Holt. Lauer described Lester Holt as “one of the best journalists, broadcasters, and people that I have ever met.” And while I respect Holt, I have not watched him consistently since he replaced Williams at the anchor desk. I have been part of the reason that the evening news, once dominated by NBC, is now a neck-and-neck race between NBC and ABC, with ABC often coming out on top. Lester Holt may be all those things Lauer said, but he doesn’t entertain me when he delivers the news.

In recent weeks, I’d been hoping that Williams would be replaced by the Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie. She lends personality to Matt Lauer’s objectivity—often adding emotion and humor when he seems uncomfortable with what he must do to appeal to his viewing audience.

I knew Guthrie didn’t stand a chance of being an evening news anchor—at least not yet. She hasn’t paid her dues. She’s a woman. And to get to that news desk, her predecessors on the Today Show, Barbara Walters and Katie Couric­—had to go to the two rival networks in order to make it to the evening news desk.

But why is it that Williams has paid a greater price than others who have betrayed the public trust on the air? The Washington Post reported that the well-respected anchors at NBC Washington News felt that Williams had damaged their credibility and that they had expressed their displeasure to NBC leadership. Brian Williams will not return to the anchor’s desk because his colleagues and NBC’s audience have made it so. Many of us are baby boomers who were taught that there is a journalistic line between print news that appears on the news page and what is published in the rest of the paper, between what appears on news broadcasts and what appears in talk shows and variety shows.

In recent years, that line has become less distinct so that now it is blurred and perhaps even moving toward nonexistence. We want theater—even in our news broadcasts. The more the viewing audience demands entertainment, the more advertisers are likely to sponsor shows that provide it. And the more lucrative the personalities, the less likely they will be held accountable. Why has Bill O’Reilly not been held to the same standard as Williams? Because O’Reilly’s colleagues and his viewing audience have defended him, and he has continued to pull in money from advertisers.

This same standard exists in politics as well. When the public demands it, careers come to an end, as John Edwards learned when his infidelity to his dying wife became public. But far more often, well-connected politicians survive such scandals largely unscathed—from Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton, the list is long.

We have the power to insist on better behavior and more integrity from the people we entrust with our social conscience. And until we care less about political gain and public theater and more about personal integrity and the common good, nothing will change.

We have the power. What will we do with it?