Was NBC Right in Keeping Brian Williams?

A photo of news anchor Brian Williams with members of the Saturday Night Live team.
Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

News anchor Brian Williams was once one of the most trusted journalists in America. He tried juggling the serious work of a journalist with his apparent desire to be an everyday guy and a celebrity.

In early 2015, that all caught up with him when he was suspended from NBC for embellishing stories about his work. NBC was left with a tough decision: fire him for lying, which would mean losing the anchor of the top network newscast in the Nielsen ratings.

The alternative was to keep him and endure the scorn of those who say his credibility has been shattered beyond repair.

NBC's Decision About Brian Williams

NBC actually found a middle ground. It decided that Williams would not return to the anchor chair on NBC Nightly News but could instead anchor on its ratings-challenged MSNBC cable channel. That's where Williams had been anchor before replacing Tom Brokaw in 2004.

In a news release, NBC said that Williams will anchor breaking news and special reports on MSNBC and would anchor the same type of coverage on NBC when his replacement Lester Holt is unavailable.

It didn't take critics long to bash NBC's move, questioning how Williams would have the credibility to appear on MSNBC but not NBC. A columnist in USA Today said that allowing Williams to work on MSNBC gives the appearance that NBC holds its cable news channel to a much lower standard.

Why NBC Made Its Decision

NBC gave itself time to investigate accusations that Williams exaggerated or made up details about stories he'd covered. That didn't make the network's decision any easier.

NBC said that Williams typically made these statements while speaking at public events or appearing on late-night talk shows, sometimes years after the story he was covering.

It wasn't as though Williams used NBC Nightly News to brag about his adventures while reporting the news.

As most news professionals know, you are never truly off the clock and able to act however you want. That's especially true for a network news anchor who's at the pinnacle of the profession.

Had NBC chosen to fire Williams outright, it's possible that his career might have been over. However, it's more likely that he would've taken his enormous name recognition and attempted to rebuild his reputation for a rival network -- if not on broadcast TV, then on cable. Someone would've taken him.

That would've left NBC battling the personality that it created. True, Williams could be considered damaged goods. Viewers' attention spans are short, and they eventually forgive most sins, especially with people they already know and like.

Williams fall from grace would've set him up for a comeback, which might have made him a bigger star than ever. By finding a way to keep Williams, NBC is able to control what happens next with him.

Lessons for Other Journalists

There's a huge responsibility to being a journalist, regardless of whether you work for a tiny local TV station or at the top of a broadcast network.

That responsibility is a requirement of having the job.

When you seek celebrity status, you run the risk of behavior that conflicts with being a journalist. You might find yourself taking a side on an issue in order to gain popularity with certain people, or in Williams case, want to make your work sound much more exciting and dangerous than it actually is.

A journalist is under constant scrutiny from critics and viewers alike. There is usually suspicion that somehow a journalist is biased. In Williams' case, there was no bias other than the attempt to twist news stories to make himself look more like the hero he seemingly wanted to be.

Williams blamed his ego when he explained his actions to Today anchor Matt Lauer. Certainly, most news anchors have to have an ego to believe that they can do the job.

However, Williams said he wanted to be "sharper, funnier and quicker" than anybody else.

That explains why he seemed to cherish his appearances on late-night talk shows and NBC's Saturday Night Live. It was on those programs that critics say Williams forgot his role as a news anchor and became an entertainer.

By most accounts, the new permanent NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt is all-news without the celebrity desire. This served NBC well as it moved beyond this public relations nightmare.

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