Brian Williams Case Raises Fundamental Questions About An Anchor's Role

Feb 12, 2015
Originally published on February 15, 2015 11:14 am
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NBC took nearly a week to suspend its chief news anchor Brian Williams after it became clear he had told a false story about the dangers he faced in Iraq. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik spoke to two former network news chiefs who say the Williams's case raises fundamental questions about the role network anchors play.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: David Westin was president of ABC News from 1997 to 2010. He says he has only sympathy for the executives at NBC, once his toughest competitor.

DAVID WESTIN: The starting point for me, when I first heard of this, was a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach because anyone who's run a major news organization is painfully aware that some sort of major problem involving the credibility of the organization can happen on any given day.

FOLKENFLIK: Westin points to scandals throughout journalism - stories that were plagiarized, stories that were made up, stories based on unreliable sources. In this case, as Westin says, Williams inflated his experience on talk shows and in public settings over the years. He then distorted it past recognition. On the "NBC Nightly News" on January 30, Williams falsely claimed a rocket-propelled grenade struck his helicopter in Iraq and forced it to land. David Westin says the story's collapse corrodes trust in the anchor, in NBC and in the greater profession. Yet, Westin adds...

WESTIN: I think we have to be very careful about throwing stones in glass houses because I think that this was not just Brian. This was not just NBC News. There is an overall trend, in television news particularly, toward making the reporters and the anchors the story rather than having them report the story.

FOLKENFLIK: Westin notes Williams's tall tale was not itself particularly important to the public's understanding of the overall story of the war in Iraq. NBC executives were slow to act, allowing Williams initially to set his own terms. Joe Scarborough, the morning host on sister channel MSNBC, spoke yesterday about the suspension on the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE SCARBOROUGH: At the beginning, many people inside this building were speculating that Brian would actually get through this a bit better than he did...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

SCARBOROUGH: Because of his close relationship with Steve Burke.

FOLKENFLIK: Burke being the Comcast executive who is CEO of NBC Universal - again, Joe Scarborough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCARBOROUGH: Six months without pay leads a lot of people in this building to ask whether Brian will ever come back.

FOLKENFLIK: So that gives rise to a question rarely posed in public by people currently leading the network news divisions.

How important is the anchor to those very newscasts?

ANDREW HEYWARD: It's a good question to which no one really knows the answer.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Andrew Heyward, previously president of CBS News.

HEYWARD: However, if you look at the salaries that the anchors have commanded by the law of supply and demand, someone, namely the executives they work for, have decided that they are an absolutely vital ingredient in success. No one has yet taken a chance and said, hey, you know, we're going to put Joe or Jill no name in there.

FOLKENFLIK: Heyward served as news chief just shy of a decade, and was involved in forcing out CBS news anchor Dan Rather after Rather's botched reporting on President George W. Bush's military record. Heyward took pains not to criticize Williams or NBC in this scandal, but he says the Williams's case shores up the need to rethink the nightly news.

HEYWARD: I do think that we should pay attention - and maybe we will now - to the mindless adulation that we attach to the anchors. And to that degree I think the networks and the audience are both complicit.

FOLKENFLIK: At ABC, Westin cultivated his share of star hosts and anchors. Yet, he says the way anchors are now marketed as stars often distorts the stories they tell.

WESTIN: Are we making sure that no matter how famous our anchors and our reporters are, they're keeping the camera focused on the story rather than on themselves?

FOLKENFLIK: Heyward goes a step further marveling that the traditional conceit of a seemingly omniscient anchor has even persevered through the age of Ron Burgundy and Jon Stewart. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.