media

What’s wrong with NBC News? Lots more than Brian Williams.

The Daily Beast reports what you probably could have guessed: not even the good folks at NBC know how l’affair Brian Williams will turn out. But in the middle of the on-condition-of-anonymity quotes, there are some revealing tidbits that shed light on the genesis of this mess.

“My God, what’s happening to Brian is in the Zeitgeist,” marveled an NBC News wag on Monday. “He’s trumping Bruce Jenner on social media. I mean, cross-dressing Bruce Jenner killed somebody, but Brian Williams is still trending.”

There are a couple problems with this. Not to downplay the sad accident Jenner was involved in, but why did the story have to bookend yesterday’s news coverage? And why wouldn’t a question of a top anchor’s trustworthiness be bigger than that? That this surprise exists in the NBC news universe betrays a misunderstanding of their job. (Lesser problem: “In the Zeitgeist”? Who the hell talks like that?)

Maybe more upsetting is the reasoning given for why NBC is investigating Williams, rather than firing him outright:

“The Comcast people have a track record of marching out all these million-dollar figures to buy their way through their problems,” says an NBC News veteran, referring to the Philadelphia-headquartered cable television and broadcasting behemoth, the news division’s parent company. “[Fired Today cohost] Ann Curry cost them a bundle. [Fired Meet the Press moderator] David Gregory cost them a bundle. [Former news president] Steve Capus cost them a bundle. But Brian Williams is different—he’s a $50 million problem. If it was a lot less than that, you’d have to wonder whether they’d keep him.”

Much like a professional athlete with a huge contract, Williams is protected by the investment that NBC just made in him, having just signed him to a big-money five-year deal. It’s a smart move in terms of dollars and cents, and if good journalism were just as important as the results of a ballgame no one could fault NBC for it. Yet each night, the NBC news signal (as well as that of CBS, ABC, and local Fox affiliates) travels over the airwaves, free of charge to anyone with a TV antenna, to help educate the populace about the day’s events. That ought to mean something when it comes to quality.

Maybe Williams isn’t guilty of anything but puffery, and after a couple weeks everything will blow over. But this ordeal has already exposed systemic blemishes of network news. When it comes down to it, Williams is the product of a news division that doesn’t understand journalism. No wonder his facts are wrong.

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