Too Big to Fire
Friday, June 19, 2015
Only in television news can you rehab your own people on television news. NBC’s disgraced Brian Williams sat for a soul-searching interview with Today’s Matt Lauer to explain and apologize for his fabulist storytelling before he returns to the NBC airwaves.
“This came from clearly a bad place, a bad urge inside me,” Williams said to Lauer. “This was clearly ego-driven, the desire to better my role in a story I was already in. That’s what I’ve been tearing apart and unpacking.”
He should keep doing his unpacking at home.
Network news operations have fired hundreds of people in the last 10 years, mostly to save money, not for embarrassing the news business. The one guy who truly deserved to be fired is Williams. When one of your reporters tells a lie, you fire him.
But Steve Burke, the CEO of NBC Universal, said, “we believe in second chances.” No he doesn’t. Any of NBC’s spear-carrying reporters in the field who did what Williams did would have been kicked out without Burke’s second chance. What NBC’s management believes in is damage control for a network that has spent too much time on the cover of the tabloids.
The negotiations between NBC and Williams’ lawyer Bob Barnett must have been fascinating. Williams would have desperately wanted to stay in the anchor chair, or at least keep some exalted position, while continuing on his $10 million a year salary.
NBC was forced to negotiate because they didn’t have the courage to simply do the right thing; fire Williams in the name of honesty and integrity.
In exchange for money and silence from both sides, NBC gets to bury Williams on its cable news outlet where few people will see him. He can’t pop up and get popular somewhere else. Williams gets to think he’s still in the game while NBC can try to quietly euthanize him. My bet is that Frankenstein will escape from the laboratory.
Network News has a long history of creating monsters, convincing them that they are the franchise, and losing control of them. Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric … the list goes on. Some of these people become so powerful the bosses answer to them, not the other way around.
The networks bet everything on their big anchors. ABC News plans its election coverage around George Stephanopoulos, who was discovered to have donated $75,000 to the Clinton Foundation. An embarrassed George said he should have disclosed the gift, revealing that he is not at his core a journalist. As ABC’s chief political reporter, he never should have given the gift to the foundation established by the most political couple in America, Bill and Hillary Clinton.
They used to say in the news business, “You can sleep with elephants if you want to, but if you do you can’t cover the circus.” Now it seems you can sleep with anyone and do the walk of shame to work the next day. ABC News couldn’t fire George, as they should have, or even remove him from political coverage. They can’t. They don’t have anyone else to do it.
Honesty and integrity are all you have in the news business. If the public doesn’t believe you, you’re done. Millions of Americans already think reporters make stuff up and Brian Williams only confirmed their belief.
I felt terrible for Williams when he was caught in the lies. To be such a public figure and become a national punch line would be devastating. He’s probably spent a lot of time awake at 4 am. I lost respect for Brian Williams, but not because he lied. I lost it because he refused to honorably resign. And I lost respect for NBC News for not having the backbone to fire him.