Because of his ability to straddle the fine line between news and entertainment, Brian Williams became the popular anchor of NBC Nightly News. In addition to his news anchor duties, Williams was a rock star at NBC because he could be funny while "slow-jamming the news" with Jimmy Fallon, hosting Saturday Night Live, and making appearances on talk shows and the sitcom 30 Rock. Many believe that NBC has been moving toward infotainment for quite some time. Whether it's the Today Show or the Nightly News, NBC seems to reward those that inject comedy and storytelling in the news mix and dismiss those, such as Ann Curry, that don't.
Doesn't rewarding behavior encourage it?
People at NBC, including the venerated Tom Brokaw, had been sending up red flags to NBC executives about Williams taking liberties with the news since the beginning of 2014. In fact, Brokaw told one colleague that Williams is more of a performer than an anchor. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Some current and former NBC insiders have been critical of Mr. Williams' second career as a comic." In spite of these warnings, NBC knew that Mr. Williams anchored America's top-rated news broadcast for a decade. This is likely the reason why NBC renewed his contract for five years and $50 million in December -- just two months ago. Why should Brian think anything is wrong if he is so handsomely rewarded for his performance?
The problem is the image of a news anchor is incompatible with that of a comedian. This is what troubled some in the news organization at NBC -- including Mr. Brokaw. To earn the public's trust, news anchors have to be credible. Comedians have to be funny. Much of the news is hardly funny. Even so, Mr. Williams successfully walked this line until news broke that seriously damaged his credibility. That's when he admitted he "misremembered" events related to a helicopter attack in Iraq after soldiers involved in the incident contradicted his story in social media. Now other statements he has made regarding Hurricane Katrina are also being called into question.
Losing the public's trust
His repeated apologies have not helped his case with the public. According to respected research firm, The Marketing Arm, his "trustworthiness" ranking has plunged from 23rd to 835th. In released statements, NBC News President, Deborah Turness, and other Comcast bigwigs failed to come to Williams' defense. Therefore, it's no surprise that Turness turned his several-day self-imposed exile into a six-month suspension without pay.
What happens now?
While many believe his suspension is likely to evolve into termination or retirement, this could be expensive for NBC. The recently-signed $50 million contract comes on the heals of other costly contract terminations with Anne Curry and David Gregory. Mr. Williams seems out of crisis management tools to recover his reputation as a credible news anchor. His only chance is to craft an ironclad, provable explanation that can satiate a skeptical public. If he does, he could perhaps return after his six-month suspension. His other option is to turn to comedy. There are reports that he wanted to be the host of the Tonight Show upon Jay Leno's exit. Others have suggested that he and Jon Stewart should trade places.
Whatever happens, Brian Williams does not deserve all the blame. He received accolades and was rewarded for his performance by his bosses. It is only after he admitted to misremembering the events in one of his stories, which caused an adverse public reaction, that many turned on him. While some believe his credibility is shot, others think that people that live in glass houses should not throw stones.