I could have saved Brian Williams from himself. Any other old pro in the news biz could have done so as well.
All it took was standing up to the Ten Million Dollar Man, waving that bogus script at his chiseled kisser and saying: “We’re not putting this bullshit on the air, not on a news show. You can lie your ass off all over town – and on Letterman, for Christ’s sake – but not from the anchor desk at the NBC Nightly News.”
So, why didn’t that happen? I don’t know. I wasn’t there.
But I do know it didn’t work the way it’s supposed to. And while the public humiliation looks good on Williams – making him a sideshow attraction in his new gig at NBC – what can you really expect from an anchor?
In the 1996 movie Up Close & Personal, Michelle Pfeiffer gets in an on-air spat with the anchor on her TV news show.
As soon as the red light dims, she bolts from the set and further explodes in anger at her boss/mentor/lover, Robert Redford. When she calms down a bit, she sums up her exasperation: “He’s just stupid.”
“He’s an anchor,” Redford explains.
Fiction, of course, can set an unrealistically high bar.
I worked about 10 years at CBC Newsworld in Toronto — after 30 years as a reporter and editor for newspapers and wire services — producing various shows with a diverse assortment of anchors. Not all were stupid.
But one thing is true at every TV news operation: The men and women with the best hair and makeup should never be allowed to put their manicured mitts on editorial content.
Brian Williams should never have been given the rope to hang himself by uttering the sentence: “The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back, during the invasion of Iraq, when the helicopter we were travelling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”
If that item broadcast last January 30th had been scripted under standard journalistic practices, red flags would have been flying all over Rockefeller Center.
Whoever cut the pictures for the piece used footage from Williams’s March 2003 report from Iraq. All he or she had to do was turn up the audio to hear Williams saying: “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.”
There it is. All that was needed to shoot down the story. It had been in the archives for nearly 12 years.
Was there nobody left at NBC News who remembered the original – true – story? No one on the NBC crew that was with Williams that day? Not his predecessor, Tom Brokaw, who introduced the item in 2003? Not a single producer, or NBC News bigwig?
Did anyone vet that item on January 30th? Did anyone with the duty and power to kill it sit on his or her hands? Or was final approval stamped by the managing editor – Brian Williams?
Which reminds me of another movie. Broadcast News (1987) was written and directed by an authority on anchors, James L. Brooks, who helped create both Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Kent Brockman on The Simpsons.
In an early scene, William Hurt is the dumb pretty boy who works as a local anchor and confesses: “Half the time I don’t get the news I’m talking about.”
He moves to a network, rises rapidly through the reporting ranks and eventually is offered the anchor chair.
“I told them I would be their anchor,” he tells an auditorium of admirers, “but I didn’t want to be the managing editor, that there were people better qualified than I to control the content. And, if there weren’t, we were all in trouble.”
It’s not Cronkite’s fault that he had the credentials – from his days at a wire service and elsewhere – to earn the managing editor title.
But the U.S. networks lost their collective minds when they bestowed the title on every anchor who followed, including Brian Williams.