We Americans are a forgiving bunch. When scandals hit, they usually blow over if they don’t linger. As John Huston said in the movie Chinatown, “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”
Which brings us to NBC new anchor Brian Williams, who has admitted to lying about being under fire in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003. (A good timeline is here.) He said the copter came under fire from an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), which was evidently not true.
Now Williams is taking a leave of absence, saying he has become too much a part of the news and may not be back for several days. It’s the right strategy as the news cycle spins so fast that the leave may make many viewers forget about the whole thing.
But I’m not so sure. While we don’t live in the same era as Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley anymore, the news anchor position – especially on a network evening news show – has its own brand equities. Foremost among them is honesty.
Once that public trust is broken, it’s hard to get back – especially if it’s the paramount brand equity in your arsenal. It’d be like if Nike shoes started causing injuries (so you couldn’t “Just Do It”).
That’s not to say Williams won’t be back and continue his career as the NBC News anchor, but I’d suggest keeping track of the ratings. NBC News, which also oversees The Today Show, Meet The Press, MSNBC and CNBC, has been under attack recently as all outlets have seen their ratings drop. The mishandling of Ann Curry’s cruel ouster from The Today Show put it behind ABC’s Good Morning America for morning TV, for instance. And there are other examples.
There’s an inherent distrust factor going on at NBC News that the Williams lie simply ties a ribbon on. I have ranted about the failure of mainstream media to be nothing more than entertainment, celebrity-chasing entities that value personality over information. Argument over truth.
The Williams lie, an attempt to bolster his own image, is a result of that cynical culture. If Williams and NBC want to regain the public trust, it should change the whole NBC News brand.
Only then will the apology (and return) of Williams make a difference.