NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams and the Peacock Network are caught in a major crisis that threatens to undermine their credibility. Williams was exposed for lying about being shot down in a helicopter during the United States invasion of Iraq by a group of veterans on Facebook (including one who was in the actual helicopter that was shot down) and the venerable Stars and Stripes publication. Williams apologized on the Nightly News claiming a faulty memory and called it “a bungled attempt to thank veterans”. NBC is declining comment. Both Williams and NBC are hoping that his apology and silence will help the issue go away. That isn’t likely.
First, social media is afire with the story. Remember social media sets narratives in a crisis. One of the top trending topics on both Twitter and Facebook is Brian Williams. From ridicule over his explanation of what happened to serious questions about his credibility and journalistic integrity, the issue is not dying down on social media.
Compounding the problem for Williams is the fact he has been telling the story of being shot down for a number of years. This was not one isolated incident of Williams telling the story. He has told it numerous times including once on “Late Night With David Letterman” prompting Letterman to call Williams a hero. Williams has yet to address this.
The claim that it was faulty memory by Williams that led him to claim he was shot down in a helicopter is fodder for late night comedians. It begs incredulity that a person cannot remember if he was or was not shot down in a helicopter in a war zone. It also lends the question of if he misinterpreted this, what else has he misinterpreted honestly or intentionally. Let’s not forget polls show that the public distrusts the media and this episode lends to that distrust. Add to the fact that Williams’ exposure comes at a time when we are seeing outrage at people who have lied about claims of military service and valor with some actually being prosecuted.
For NBC, the issue is will they do something to reassure the public of the network’s integrity. If not they could suffer as CBS has over the years with questions concerning that network’s integrity.
So what should Williams and NBC do?
- Address the issue in more detail on NBC Nightly News explaining why he has said this story repeatedly over the years, apologize strongly, and ask for public forgiveness.
- Take a leave of absence. To continue to anchor the Nightly News as if nothing happened would further anger critics and keep the story alive longer.
- Volunteer with veteran’s groups.
- Use this as a teaching moment for journalistic students.
- After a hiatus return and work and after an interval leave the anchor desk, as he will never completely win back viewer’s trust.
- Announce that the network is conducting an internal investigation of this episode.
- Announce the network’s own apology to veterans who were insulted.
- Address how they will deal with fundamental issue of trust with viewers and work to re-establish it.
- If Williams is found to have misinterpreted other issues including news stories terminate him at once.
- If not, begin planning and working on a post-Brian Williams Nightly News after a brief period of time after the episode fades.
Hoping that the Brian Williams crisis will go away is wishful thinking for both NBC and Williams. Implementing a strategy now to address the issues raised will allow the dust to settle. Ultimately NBC must face the fact that a change must be made for its own long-term image.