It would be too easy to conflate two news items – Brian Williams’ suspension from NBC’s nightly news and John Stewart’s departure from his nightly satirical news show – so I’ll pass on the temptation..
Plus Williams’ suspension and the way his superiors are handling it are far too serious to mix it with a comedian's career.
NBC and Williams’ handling of his problems are strange to me, as someone who did crisis communications, which means helping to manage crises not just communicate about them, during my working days.
Here is a summary of NBC and Williams’ reactions during the last week or so of the controversy:
First, Williams apologized for his memory lapses. Then when the problem didn’t go away, NBC announced an internal investigation to get to the bottom of it all, even though Williams had already admitted he conflated. Then Williams’ announced an apparently voluntary suspension of himself from his anchor duties for a few days because he had become the news. Then, before the self-suspension ended, NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, but before the internal investigation, which they said would take weeks, was over. And, they are implying Williams will be back in his seat at the end of the six months.
If a politician handled his own crisis this way, NBC would be all over him trying to figure out what’s going on and why he keeps changing his tune almost daily. They'd wonder what he's hiding.
I do think Williams should lose his job over his failures, unfortunately. To sit in a trusted spot that millions of us tune to for credible news reporting and then violate that trust, well, that’s a firing offense.
Some say Williams should be forgiven because it wasn’t in his normal job responsibilities that he made these mistakes. But he is always in the public spotlight and that means his public behavior does affect his anchor credibility, just as any politician’s behavior – whether acting in his or her official duties or his personal life – has become a measuring stick for performance. The public trust is the public trust and everyone who holds that trust should be held to the same standard.
So, too, for the news division executives, who are in the forefront of this NBC drama.
NBC’s news division has not performed well.“Today” has been slipping for years (as have all other morning news shows), NBC’s “Meet the Press” is in free fall because it can’t find a credible (there’s that word again) host for it since the incomparable Tim Russert died, and the woman in charge of fixing the division has failed at that job.
Interestingly, the nightly news was the jewel for the division, leading the other broadcast networks, heading into Williams’ self-inflicted woes. And now Williams has damaged that franchise.
In this day and age when everyone is “building his personal brand,” Williams’ seemingly endless appearances on “The Daily Show", Letterman, etc., finally caught up to him. Why wasn’t being the anchor on the top-rated network news show brand enough?
The news division’s problem is that it is reacting to the daily headlines, not leading and is trying to control the next cycle’s headline rather than focusing on the real problems. Why the investigation if they were going to act before the investigation was over? And why is what seems open and shut becoming such a drawn out affair?
If this is how the News Divisions leaders handle a crisis, it isn’t only Williams who should lose his job.