Brian Williams should resign or lose his anchor job, but ethics aren’t only factor

Predicting the future is always tricky, just ask Seattle Seahawks fans when the team had second and one yard to win the Super Bowl.

Right now, it’s hard to gauge NBC Nightly News’ anchor Brian Williams’ chances of surviving his lies and contradictions and disassembling over whether a helicopter he was in over Iraq in 2003 was shot down. Journalistic ethics demand his head. No reporter or anchor — Dan Rather, Janet Cooke — should be allowed to stay on the job after such an ethics breach.

But as Buffalo News Life & Arts editor Bruce Andriatch so smartly noted yesterday, it’s not just about ethics, it’s about money and an enormous corporate network and advertisers.

In the end, cynics among us will agree, it’s not about doing the right thing, it’s about what the advertisers say.

He clearly has friends in the business — and he’s hard not to like. The Washington Post today ran a soppy rationalization disguised as science absolving his behavior, noting that people remember things wrong at times of great complexity, emotion and stress.

The story cites President Bush saying he watched the first plane crash into the Twin Towers on 9/11 before he read a story book to school children, when everyone knows he was reading the book when he found out about the first attack.

The story also cites Hillary Rodham Clinton’s account of being shot at in Bosnia, when it proved to be only precautions against being shot at.

But the Bush memory altered the sequence of events just prior to the biggest catastrophe of the man’s life, president or not. Clinton did have to put on a flak vest because of sniper warnings. These are nuances of memory.

Did your helicopter get shot down and crash or did it not? That’s the crux here. And, then, why did you so obviously lie about it for 12 years?

Ever been in a car accident? Do you recall vividly the exact moment and circumstances of impact? Of course you do. And unless Williams rode dozens of helicopters in war zones and crashed in many of them, such an event would stand out in his life and memory.

There’s no fog of war here. So let’s turn to money and advertisers.

NBC officials have said nothing since this crisis went public Wednesday night. That’s smart on their part — no hurried expressions of confidence to embarrass them later as more facts emerge. It also reeks of testing the waters.

No doubt chief marketing officers for the newscast’s advertisers are being called. Are you going to pull your ads? Will you publicly balk at supporting Williams on the air? Are you running focus groups of viewers to see if they’re going to switch to ABC or CBS?

Honestly, there’s one solution here. Williams should resign. He’s probably got enough money to live among the 1 percenters the rest of his life. And people have short memories. Look at David Letterman, who announced an affair and was eventually welcomed back to TV. Alec Baldwin’s been in more scrapes and crashes than even Williams’ imagination could conjur. Paul Reubens, aka Pee Wee Herman, went down in scandalous flames, yet re-emerged a decade later making movies again. And the list goes on.

Quit now, let NBC make Lester Holt the first African-American prime time anchor, and come back in six months or a year at CNN or as lead face of a Google/Snapchat/Vimeo startup newscast for iPads only.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.





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