NBC News Staffers ‘Panic’ Over Executive Decision to Stand By Brian Williams

Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images
Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images

Tom Brokaw is the highest-profile dissenter to call for the ouster of Brian Williams over his stolen valor helicopter story, but he’s not the only one.  According to insider accounts, Brokaw said that lesser journalists and producers would have been instantly terminated for the kind of false reporting Williams turned in.  This point does not appear to have escaped the lower-level staffers of NBC News, as can be seem from some heated behind-the-scenes chatter captured by the New York Post:

NBC brass hasn’t been talking to lower-level employees about the situation, leaving people in a panic, the insider said.

“NBC bosses don’t understand how serious this is. Nobody in a leadership position is talking to the troops. Nobody has addressed it,” the source said.

One longtime NBC employee who has worked with Williams on several occasions had a few dirty words to describe the celebrated anchor, calling him a “real pompous piece of s–t.”

“He’s an a–hole,” he fumed. “He’s not a journalist. He’s a reader.

“Oh, the fireworks that are going off inside,” he said. “It’s embarrassing. He’s the face on NBC. He’s a liar.

“Everyone knew it.”

There’s a maddening inversion of prestige and responsibility in a situation like this.  Of course the young careers of lower-level journalists would be instantly vaporized upon contact with such a phony story.  In keeping with this sorry modern era of aristocratic privilege and special rules for the upper crust, NBC executives and Williams apologists in elite media circles seem to think a big star should get a few “Get Out of Scandal Free” cards.  They accept it as a matter of course that his prestige, and the way he’s used that prestige for laudable purposes in other areas, should insulate him from the consequences of his actions.

It bears remembering that even as Williams and his apologists try to downplay the helicopter lie into a minor case of cloudy memory concerning a long-ago incident, or a story he told offhand now and then with a few minor embellishments, it is in fact a false report.  Williams didn’t just invent a tale of taking rocket fire in Iraq to impress his drinking buddies at the local watering hole.  He filed this report as an official product of NBC News, which has referenced this phony news product on numerous occasions over the past 12 years.  They’ve even used it for political purposes, as when Williams tried to bully General David Petraeus.  Brian Williams isn’t guilty of boasting.  He is guilty of corrupt journalism, and he had a sizable cohort of accomplices within NBC News who helped him peddle the lie for a prolonged period of time.

It seems like only the lower-level employees of NBC News understand that.  Unlike the top executives, they appreciate how having a serial liar as the face of the network news division will tarnish their image, no matter how many media aristocrats whip out op-ends calling for Williams to be excused on the grounds that he’s too big to be brought low by stealing the valor of a few faceless soldiers, in a war Big Media hated.  Unfortunately, because they are low-level employees, the top executives of an operation with serious integrity problems aren’t listening to them; it takes someone of Brokaw’s stature to rattle the necessary cages.

The circled wagons around Williams have begun to roll away — in part because, as Howard Kurtz notes at Fox News, Williams’ on-air apology and retraction was itself filled with falsehoods and evasions, creating a secondary scandal for both the embattled anchor and his network.  Other mainstream media sources, including the New York Timesjoined the consensus that Williams’ “real problems” started after he delivered his less-than-candid apology on Wednesday night.

Kurtz agrees with the NBC staffers quoted above that a lesser correspondent would be “lucky to get off with a reprimand” after giving such a false account… but thinks Williams will survive because he’s a “bankable asset” who is “too big to fail.”  I don’t know about that, Mr. Kurtz.  I think Americans are sick unto death of “too big to fail,” they’re tired of being lied to, and they’re not inclined to look favorably upon stolen-valor offenses.  If inertia is the only reason a major news organization can think of to keep a serial fabulist as its front man, that organization is going to find itself in very deep trouble with a significant portion of the viewing public.