In the days and months to come, much will be said and written about Brian Williams and his first utterances to Matt Lauer on Friday's Today Show about his suspension from anchor chair at the Nightly News. Many people have very strong feelings about Williams which is understandable since up to last February he was addressing more than seven million viewers nightly for over a decade. Therefore the question arises, "Does Williams deserve a second chance?"
Most people are aware of the fact that last February, Williams went on the Nightly News and apologized for having "misrepresent[ed]" reporting his role in a story that he had covered in Iraq while embedded with the military. As a result of his infraction, NBC suspended Williams from his jobs as anchor and managing editor of Nightly News for a half year and caused him to forfeit $5 million of his annual salary.
As a society we are curiously divided. On the one hand there are millions of people who are highly critical and vehemently unforgiving of Williams. Some are even skeptical about the sincerity of his strongly worded, emotional and clearly deeply felt apology. The more angry observers of William's predicament stormed the social media to express their opinions. Judging by the comments online in more than one area, apparently more people are willing to go to the trouble of logging on to say something negative than something positive.
Also as a society, we are clearly obsessed with the first t.v. re-appearances of those celebrities, from one field or another, who have experienced a dramatic fall from grace. Remember the case of Lance Armstrong, who rose to the top of his sport of cycling, who steadfastly proclaimed his innocence about taking performance enhancing drugs only to ultimately admit his lies to Oprah Winfrey and millions of viewers. Tiger Woods, arguably one of history's greatest golfers, apologized in a very public televised press conference seen by millions, for his many extra marital affairs. Even the venerable t.v. host, David Letterman, on whose historic talk show Williams once made some of his now famously refuted remarks about reporting while under fire, had to apologize to his millions of viewers that he had taken improper liberties with some of his female staffers.
The comments on Twitter and elsewhere regarding the Lauer-Williams interview range from very negative, judgmental, highly skeptical and sometimes downright hateful, to some who express a vote of confidence in Williams' emotional and compelling apology. He did say, "I'm sorry," take full responsibility for his actions and promise that "Going forward it will be different."
However, he said much more. In the same way that we came to appreciate his intelligence as a news anchor and journalist, as evidenced by the high ratings of his appearances on "Nightly," and like him as a person with charisma and a sense of humor from his appearances on SNL and Jimmy Fallon's shows, he clearly exhibited that he felt we all deserved a full and thorough explanation. And although he called what he had been through, "torture," he explained how he had spent all these months examining what he had done, trying to understand it so that he could explain it.
"After that incident," Williams explained, "I tried and failed, as others have tried and failed. And why is it when we're trying to say, 'I'm sorry' that we can't come out and say, 'I'm sorry.'" This demonstrated a very thorough self-examination by Williams of how he compared to others who had made serious mistakes as public figures.
"I would like to take this opportunity," Williams continued, "to say that what has happened in the past has been identified and torn apart by me and has been fixed...and going forward there are going to be different rules of the road."
"I know why people feel the way they do - I get this. I am responsible for this and I am sorry for what happened here. I am different as a result and I expect to be held to a different standard," Williams concluded.
If one examines Williams' full Lauer interview, which we did several times, it is obvious that his comments come from the heart, and that he dug very deep to figure out why he lied, or embellished, or exaggerated. He explained that after he left work at the end of a night he felt differently from how he wore his responsibilities as an anchorman and managing editor of the news. He even admitted that he became "sloppy" in some situations and let his guard down.
Having been one of those professional crisis management consultants to extremely high profile individuals, in all my 40 years of consulting, I don't think I have seen a better mea culpa than that delivered by Williams. And I don't think he needed anyone to tell him what to say though, no doubt, he aggressively sought counsel because that's what a reporter would do in such an investigation.
There is also something wonderful about us as a society. We do not want people who have suffered like this to continue to suffer indefinitely. We want them to be relieved of the pain of it all. And, though understandably each case is very different, we don't want our heroes to be destroyed. In many cases, as with Williams, some of us can identify with their experience of a public humiliation. We are actually pulling for them to be what we thought they were. In fact, we want them to have a second chance.
Andrew Lack, the head of NBC News, and the others who had to decide Williams' fate, did a good thing. They couldn't just allow Williams to return to his job as if nothing had happened, despite his hefty fine and suspension. And, as Williams pointed out to Lauer, it would have been truly unfair to Lester Holt, a skillful, professional anchorman, who stepped in without missing a beat and took on the job of "temporary" anchor when Williams was suspended. Holt has now been made permanent anchor there.
MSNBC will have Williams the anchor, or as they describe it the head of "breaking news" (is there any other kind?) of MSNBC which has abysmal ratings, so low in fact that Williams' mere appearance there could become quite a success story. And, for those of us who were looking forward to the return of Brian Williams, the good news is that it's going to happen in August after his six month suspension is lifted.
Few comebacks can equal that of president William Jefferson Clinton who has done so much for the world's poor, hungry and the tragically diseased and abandoned children and adults. After suffering the highly questionable impeachment that so marred his presidency during a time of peace and prosperity, Bill Clinton started the Clinton Initiative and he is now one of the most respected elder statesman of all time. Maybe he will tune in to watch Brian Williams begin his comeback in August. I know I will.
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