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Despite lies, Brian Williams will still report breaking news

NBC has announced that while “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams will not be returning to his old post, he will be joining MSNBC as a breaking news anchor. Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News, and Mark Feldstein, a broadcast journalism professor at the University of Maryland, discuss with Hari Sreenivasan what this move means for broadcast journalism.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    After months of review, NBC News announced today that longtime anchorman Brian Williams will not be returning as anchor of the network’s nightly news program. He will, however, stay with NBC and join its cable outlet, MSNBC, as a breaking news anchor.

    Lester Holt, William’s temporary replacement, will now officially get the job as anchor of “NBC Nightly News.”

    Williams was suspended after the discovery that he fabricated a story about coming under fire on a helicopter during the Iraq War. But there was more.

    Hari Sreenivasan has the story.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    An internal NBC review also found Williams made a number of inaccurate statements about his experience reporting in the field. The network is calling the move to MSNBC a chance for Williams to earn back everyone’s trust.

    Two views on the wisdom of this decision.

    Andrew Heyward is the former president of CBS News. Mark Feldstein is a professor at the University of Maryland College of Journalism. He’s a former investigative correspondent for ABC and CNN, even worked at NBC.

    So, Andrew Heyward, I want to start with you.

    It seems that this was a practical decision, more so than a principled one. If Brian Williams can be trusted, why not give him his job back? If he can’t be trusted, doesn’t this create sort of a double standard? Is MSNBC just a little lower than NBC?

  • ANDREW HEYWARD, Former CBS News President:

    Well, I don’t think there’s a double standard for accuracy.

    The audience, the viewer has the right to expect accuracy from a reporter reporting from a mudslide in Marin County, just as from the anchor of an evening newscast.

    I do think there’s a hierarchy in the television news world, and the evening news or the nightly news has traditionally been the so-called flagship program. And with the slight exception of ABC now, traditionally, the anchor of that program has been the so-called face of the network.

    So, I think, in this case, Brian is paying a price for severe errors in judgment. I don’t think that anybody’s going to hold him to a different standard for accuracy, and I think the viewers will understand exactly what’s going on and will not think that somehow they’re being given some kind of second-class citizen as a journalist.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Mark Feldstein, can Williams regain his credibility as the face of breaking news, as NBC would like him to be?

  • MARK FELDSTEIN, Professor, University of Maryland College of Journalism:

    I don’t know. We will see. I’m skeptical.

    You know, if you don’t tell the truth, whether it’s on the air or on your newscast, or an entertainment show, and you do it 10 or 11 times, which is what’s been reported, I think there’s a cloud that’s going to hang over him.

    And it was breaking news where he got himself into trouble in the first place, telling some of these exaggerations. You know, as a journalism professor, I try to teach my students that the most important thing is the truth, is accuracy. And the trouble is, this sends a message that, no, really, fame matters more, slickness matters more, being cozy with your bosses matters more. And that’s troubling.

  • ANDREW HEYWARD:

    I would respectfully disagree with that.

    I don’t think this is about coziness with the bosses. I think this was a business decision that the chairman of the NBC News group, Andy Lack, and his boss, Steve Burke, head of NBC Universal, made in a businesslike way.

    Yes, it’s a practical decision, but I actually don’t think that Brian is going to — well, the viewers will get to ultimately decide whether he can regain his credibility, but just a slight correction. No one is alleging that he distorted his breaking news reporting. Most of these sins were well after the fact on talk shows.

    Again, I don’t want to split hairs. These were very bad errors in judgment. But the one thing we can be pretty darn sure of is, Brian Williams is never going to exaggerate his exploits again.

  • MARK FELDSTEIN:

    Well, we don’t know this. You know, you’re taking the network’s word for it. They have kept their report secret. They have not revealed it to the public.

    The investigation was held in secret by internal employees who once answered to Brian Williams. The fact that they’re not releasing this report, frankly, is suspect, and it raises suspicions that NBC would never accept from a politician or corporation it were investigating.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Mark Feldstein, how does this play into the role of the anchor changing? It’s certainly different than it was 25 years ago.

  • MARK FELDSTEIN:

    Well, that’s true.

    I mean, one of the dirty little secrets of television news is that, in many respects, the famous anchors are glorified announcers, present company excepted here. PBS is smaller staff, and not commercial.

    But most of the journalistic news gathering is done off camera by producers who are much lower paid. And there’s this sort of Potemkin village that the public sees that suggests that these faces are the real news gathering arm.

    Maybe if NBC were to cop to that, and we went to a sort of postmodern anchor, a younger, savvier, hipper audience might kind of get that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Andrew?

  • ANDREW HEYWARD:

    I think that Mark is on to something, that the pretense and the phony omniscience of television news has to either wither away or be stripped away for the next generation to accept it.

    But I think, ironically, Brian — this may seem counterintuitive — is a good person to do that. And cable is an environment where he’s going to have a chance to do much more extemporaneous reporting, especially if he’s doing live or breaking events.

    I think where the so-called Potemkin village breaks down is when you’re covering a live breaking event. That’s a very high level of skill. Yes, it’s collaborative, but trust me — and I know Mark, also — we have both worked with lots of network anchors. They are very, very talented people, and certainly Brian Williams among them.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right.

    Andrew Heyward and Mark Feldstein, thanks so much.

  • MARK FELDSTEIN:

    You bet.

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