Brian Williams' Years of Courting Celebrity May Lead to His Undoing (Guest Column)


The 'Nightly News' anchor and the network brass at NBC better hope that more instances of misremembering the news aren't uncovered.

Since the advent of television, no network news anchor has so fervently courted celebrity quite like NBC's Brian Williams.

Let's be careful to distinguish between being a "celebrity" and being "famous." Underlying Williams' many appearances on David Letterman's Late Show or NBC's The Tonight Show or The Daily Show With Jon Stewart or any number of events he has hosted or cameos he has made, which appear to have increased exponentially in recent years, is a seemingly undeniable drive to be not just a "famous news anchor" known for appearances on Nightly News but a "cool celebrity" who is a mainstay of NBC's brand. 

To be sure, TV news anchors present and past — including Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and many others — were indeed famous, which is to say identifiable to a mass audience almost solely based on the work they did. 

Williams can hardly be blamed for wanting to raise his profile. With recognition ideally comes viewers. And as the audience for broadcast television generally, and network evening newscasts in particular, has splintered and eroded beginning almost concurrently with his ascension to NBC Nightly News anchor in 2004, no longer does putting on a solid journalistic broadcast ensure that viewers with watch it. Williams' Nightly News leads his competitors in the ratings, drawing just under 9 million viewers on average against slightly more than 8 million for ABC and about 7 million for CBS. 

Up against 24-hour news networks and an endless stream of information being digitally blasted to an always-on audience, to say nothing of videogames, YouTube videos, messaging apps, and the plethora of other activities fighting for our attention, Williams did what he presumably thought he had to do to generate viewers: He pimped himself out.

Frequently — and sometimes freely, like when he very boldly hosted Saturday Night Live in 2007 or slow jams the news with NBC colleague Jimmy Fallon. And sometimes silently if not willingly, such as when Fallon uses supercuts of Williams' broadcasts to create viral videos of the tired but still very popular "serious white guy rapping" trope.

It was only earlier this week, for instance, that social media exploded over Williams for a different reason: Fallon's latest viral video of him, this time a supercut set to Snoop Dogg's "Who Am I," which currently has more than 1.1 million views on YouTube. Though no solid evidence exists to support this claim, it is entirely reasonable to credit Williams' ratings lead to his willingness to get out of the anchor chair, shed what The New York Times calls the "moral authority of the nightly network news anchor" and show up in places exhibiting a personality one doesn't typically associate with serious newscasters, which is to say exhibiting a personality of any kind.

Personally, I feel the opposite — I wrote a post for BuzzFeed while employed there last year about how I found Williams' desire for celebrity tiresome and off-putting.

The irony then is that Williams' coming under fire for never actually having come under fire is due almost entirely to a story in Stars & Stripes that amplified the fact-checking masses on social media, which the anchor is known to loathe — though he has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, Williams has never tweeted and only follows four people — and an appearance on Letterman's Late Show presumably made to promote the Nightly News that has been resurrected to inflict as many hits to Williams' reputation as it has views.

What exactly happened on that military helicopter in Iraq back in 2003 is still open to debate. The pilot who at first seemed to support Williams' story by saying the helicopter they were flying in did indeed come under "small arms fire" on Friday recanted his story. Williams has apologized for misremembering, saying that he was in a different helicopter than the one that came under fire and got confused.

Journalism professors, media reporters and military pundits, along with the completely uninformed, have all offered opinions as to what should now happen to Williams. And now others are questioning the veracity of Williams' reporting for NBC during Hurricane Katrina. 

Reports on what precisely is going on inside NBC have been a mile wide and an inch deep, with some saying network brass is furious and others saying they stand behind him. Tom Brokaw apparently wants Williams fired. Or maybe he doesn't.

For her part, NBC News president Deborah Turness confirmed in an office memo distributed to staff Friday that an internal team at the network is looking into the facts behind Williams' story "to help us make sense of all that transpired" and said that Williams apologized "once again and specifically expressed how sorry he is for the impact this has had on all of you and this proud organization."

It is, of course, a favorite pastime of journalists to dig into the body of work of a fellow journalist found to be less than truthful in the act of reporting. Williams is now under the microscope, and he and the network brass at NBC better hope that more instances of misremembering the news aren't uncovered. After all, there's nothing the public likes more than watching a celebrity slowly and painfully fall from grace.

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