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This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Brian Williams, a terribly nice man who is in great and probably mortal trouble for his Iraq War fibs, long has been a made-up figure.
He is America’s most prominent newsman but never has reported the news. He is the managing editor of a news organization, once among the largest in the country, that has been stripped down to the barest bones. He has assumed the mantle of network anchorman, as though it is a job that still commands the greatest stature and gravitas, but which, everyone understands, is mere relic now. He gamely continues the conceit that the network news broadcast is one of the primary sources of news for most Americans — at best a nostalgic, if not comical, notion.
The remarkable thing is not that his war exaggerations have been found out, but that he’s managed so confidently to pull off the network anchor role for so long. Now the question is not so much did he lie about Iraq, but can the network maintain the illusion of the network news? And does it really want to?
Williams, 55, segued into the network anchor job, replacing Tom Brokaw in part because of Iraq and his exploits there. At the time he was anchoring an MSNBC nightly show about the war, and, with great promotional fanfare, leaving his desk to parachute into the field. But the other part of Williams’ eligibility and credentials for the job was that he had become exceptionally willing to represent General Electric, the network’s then-owner, and its CEO Jack Welch, in all sorts of public — read public relations — venues. Williams became an in-house, all-purpose corporate face and moderator.
Maintaining the evening news was perhaps more useful for the corporate agenda than it was as a programming tool or journalistic function. Indeed, despite its 8 million or so nightly viewers and an estimated $200 million in annual ad revenue, Nightly News long has run against the currents of news programming and become quite an organizational sore thumb — a phantom power base that commanded a strange primacy in the corporate bureaucracy. Williams, mostly irrelevant to the overall NBCUniversal bottom line or to the news itself, was yet very powerful.
Each of the networks has, over the past decade or more, made tentative efforts toward disbanding the evening news or combining it with cable operations, or, in many variations of this deal discussion, partnering with CNN. In effect, everybody recognized that the nature of newsgathering had profoundly changed and that networks could not compete (or had no interest in competing) as all-purpose news organizations. But in the end, nobody wanted to take the PR hit for killing the news, or lose the PR advantage in having it.
Until Williams, once the ultimate PR asset, became the ultimate PR nightmare.
He could not have done this at a worse time for the network. NBC’s news franchises — Today, MSNBC, CNBC and now Nightly — have serious troubles. Its news executives — Patricia Fili-Krushel, who runs the entire division (including MSNBC and CNBC), and Deborah Turness, who runs the NBC side, and the heads of the individual shows and channels — all appear to have ticking clocks over their heads.
The problem now is greater than that the bullets whizzing by Williams were at quite some remove. It’s rather that the affair exposes the entire make-believe aspects of Williams’ job. So how do you fix that? While you can get rid of Williams, you still are stuck with the fake news.
There is, however, a game-changing solution: Get rid of it. Don’t just sideline Williams, sideline the whole evening-news conceit. In PR terms, you don’t have to even say you’ve killed it, just that you’re entering a new era — one that was in fact entered, willingly or not, long ago. This might even leapfrog NBC over its competitors by allowing it to consolidate its news arms into one (even making a win for Turness!). The chance that Fili-Krushel or Turness, whose job is to maintain a system, can do that, is especially remote. Except, at this point, really what choice do they have? Network news, as has been evident for a generation, but never as starkly clear as now, is never going to be the network news again. It’s finished. Finally. Take a breath.
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