Will news consumers trust Brian Williams again?

Questions about credibility have removed Brian Williams from the anchor chair, while Jon Stewart -- not a journalist but a comedian who critiques the news -- has to decided to bow out. What does it mean for American media? Judy Woodruff speaks with Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, former president of ABC News David Westin and Max Frankel, former New York Times executive editor.

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    We get reaction to this decision and the larger issues here.

    David Westin is the former president of ABC News. He's now the principal at Witherbee Holdings, which advises and invests in media companies. Max Frankel is the former executive editor of The New York Times. And Kelly McBride is a leading voice on ethical issues at The Poynter Institute.

    And we welcome all three of you.

    Kelly McBride, I'm going to start with you.

    I think some are questioning why NBC made this decision to suspend Brian Williams before they had finished their internal investigation. What do you make of that? What do you make of the punishment?

    KELLY MCBRIDE, Vice President of Academic Programs, Poynter Institute: Well, it was a little bit mysterious, because, normally, a media company would say what they were suspending the individual for, so that there would be some sort of record of it.

    So the fact that they suspended him before their investigation is complete, maybe it was a P.R. move. Maybe it was more about the public relations than the journalism. Maybe they wanted to buy themselves some time in order to figure out what their next strategic move is. And it's possible that Brian Williams will never come back on the air.


    Max Frankel, what do you make of the punishment and how this was done?

  • MAX FRANKEL, Former Executive Editor, The New York Times:

    Well, breach of trust was the accusation, and I think that's exactly the right charge.

    They are buying time. They are worried about the financial investment in "The Nightly News", which is an enormous part of the NBC operation. There may be a chance for remorse and rehabilitation, as their announcement suggested, but, frankly, I'm very skeptical. I think the breach of trust — "I saw something with my eyes and what I have reported to you on camera was wrong." That's a very serious distortion of what the job of a news anchor should be, and I agree that he may never get back.


    David Westin, how do you size this up, as someone who has sat at the head of a news division for a competing network?

  • DAVID WESTIN, Former President, ABC News:

    Well, of course, I don't know what the thinking was of Steve Burke or the management of NBC News.

    From where I sit, I think what Steve did was just about exactly right. On the one hand, he needed quickly to get out with a statement that the breach of trust that Max refers to is inexcusable and is terribly important to them. He needs to communicate with his own organization, as well as with the public, that they take this extremely seriously.

    And as far as the investigation goes, we don't know what that will show, but what Brian already admitted to constitutes a breach of trust. At the same time, I think Steve was right in trying to hold out some hope for Brian and saying that they were rooting for him and people deserve a second chance, because at least when I was in situations that were difficult, maybe not this situation, but others, I wanted to only decide the things I needed to decide, and see how it plays out, because right now I don't think anyone knows all the facts.


    Go ahead, Max Frankel.


    The question of the future turns on what he can do in the future.

    Can he sit down and ask Hillary Clinton about what it was like running away from bullets that weren't there? Can he confront a president who says, I'm not a crook? Can he incredibly interrogate lying politicians, if you will, without them turning the tables on him?

    That's the future that Brian has to face, and he has to be able to persuade an audience that all of that is in the past and that he can responsibly deal with the tensions of the news in the future. It's a tall order.


    And that raises the question, Kelly McBride, I wanted to ask you, and that is, what does determine whether he comes back and what is at stake, truly, here for NBC?


    Well, I think NBC is asking two questions. And one is the credibility question Max is asking right now. Can he ask those tough questions of sources and do it with any amount of integrity and credibility?

    And then the second thing is, is, will the audience trust him? And that's a gamble. Six months from now, if they decide to put him back on the air, they will be looking at revisiting this whole mess, and, by then, the audience may have attached to another anchor and may be completely willing to move on with somebody else.

    So they're really looking at a numbers game. What can they reasonably expect the audience to do between now and then, and then what makes sense in six months in terms of putting him back on the air? Is it worth the gamble then or now?


    I want to turn to David, to David Westin.

    How do you see that? And, David, I mean, I have a conflict of interests here, as a news anchor, in asking this, but how much does it matter who a network puts in the anchor seat, when you see the audience gravitating so rapidly to news that's on demand and not appointment viewing?


    Well, certainly, the business is going through traumatic changes.

    And that may partly be what underlies the overall movement of television news toward more branding and marketing, which I think is a broader problem than just Brian Williams or NBC News.

    But, at the same time, as you know, Judy, there are still I think roughly 8.5 million, nine million people who tune in to "NBC Nightly News" every night. That is a very large audience compared to anything you're seeing online, as a practical matter.

    And don't misunderstand me. I agree that this is a very high hill for Brian to climb. I just am not prepared yet to conclude he hasn't done it. If I were at NBC News, I would be looking at how the public reacts over the next six months. I would be looking at how Brian conducts himself.

    And most important. I would be looking at how at what else we find out in the investigation. I just wouldn't be willing to rule it out. And one last point, just to make us think about it. I agree with Max that asking those questions will be difficult for him if he comes back.

    On the other hand, if he comes back, he will be a different and better anchor and journalist than he's ever been before. He will be truly purer than Caesar's wife because he will need to prove to everyone every day that he takes the truth extremely seriously.


    Well, Max Frankel, I guess I want to ask, what — are standards changing for what anchors need to be and do because of this dramatic move to digital and on demand?


    Yes. Well, there is another villain in this whole story, and it's this camera.

    You know, before I left the house, I had to worry about my haircut which I didn't get. I had to powder my nose to cover up the scar. The diva nature of the anchors, the fact that the networks are selling the reader, the presenter of the news, rather than the news itself, it means that not just Brian, but a lot of us are very envious of Jon Stewart, because he can be the persona, he can be the comedian, he can be the entertainer, he can relate to the audience in a way that those of us who deal in news shouldn't.


    And that brings me finally to a question to Kelly about Jon Stewart and the effect he's had on so-called real news.


    Well, sure.

    Jon Stewart was a game-changer himself. Seventeen years ago, he invented a form of media criticism that has come to dominate the industry now. And it is the preferred source of news for certain generations. And that's not new. That was 10 years ago when that information came out.

    We all sort of shook our heads and said, really? Jon Stewart? And now it makes perfect sense. As we have gotten more and more voices into the marketplace of ideas, the funny guy stands out. The guy who can be clever, who can develop a rapport and who can pick and choose what topics he covers, that's a lot easier of a job than sitting in the nightly news chair and playing it straight.

    And that's really why — when we go back to Brian Williams, that's why there was such pressure to develop that personable brand, that guy in the middle of it all. It made him stand apart from his competitors, because he had to not just compete against the other nightly news, but against Jon Stewart.


    And very quickly, David Westin, what does that mean for whoever replaces or whether Brian Williams comes back?


    I hope that there is some good that comes out of all of this. And I feel very badly for Brian and for NBC News.

    I would hope that all the newsrooms, instead of gloating about what has happened over at NBC News, take a hard look at themselves and ask themselves, are their anchors and their correspondents covering the story or are they trying to be part of the story? Because I think that's the fundamental weakness, even evil that underlies this. And everyone can take a hard look at themselves and learn from that.





    We heard the amen.

    We want to thank all three of you, David Westin, Max Frankel, Kelly McBride. Thank you.


    Online, we did collect eight unforgettable moments from "The Daily Show." You can find those clips on our home page at PBS.org/NewsHour.

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