It is cosmic retribution that the on-air talent pool at NBC shook out in such a way that Lester Holt emerges as the best candidate to replace Williams. Too bad it’s under a cloud of scandal, and just when TV news is losing its luster
By AMY ALEXANDER
The swift downfall of “NBC Nightly News” anchorman Brian Williams is the latest in a long postmodern line of detonations of major news industry figures. Hubris and a big dose of entitlement and insecurity are likely part of what drove Williams to believe he was safe to mischaracterize the events of a news story and to cast himself as the heroic survivor of a wartime near-catastrophe in 2003 Iraq.
Williams lied, yes, though not in a skeevy manner that we’ve seen before in contemporary journalism. Williams’ over-dramatizations-cum-lies are actually cause for at least a measure of compassion, at least they are if one is inclined, as I am, to view most instances of self-aggrandizement as a normal human impulse, distinct from, say, Sociopathic forms of self-puffery designed to mask ill-intent or actions. Williams’ ethical breaches can be viewed as screw-ups resulting from the not unusual combination of insecurity and over-confidence.
Also, unlike Stephen Glass, Patricia Smith, Jayson Blair, Mike Barnicle and Janet Cooke — the most notorious fabricators and fabulists to lose prominent news industry jobs since 1980 — Williams did not invent characters, scenes or quotes from whole cloth, or plagiarize in the classic definition. Williams’ crime was to embellish an event (one that we are fairly certain of, although there may have been other instances). He crossed the line of journalism ethics, a professional sin that is serious enough to draw, at the least, professional sanction.
While the “official” shape of any sanction that Williams might face is still up in the air, he has already paid a huge price in the form of public flogging for his poor judgement.
Lester Holt On Deck: Has His Chance to Lead “Nightly” Been Tainted?
Key questions remain, however.
— Should Williams permanently lose his anchor and managing editor jobs at NBC News?
— Now that Williams’ has apparently voluntarily removed himself from his full-time role anchoring “Nightly,” does the heat surrounding him cast negative light on his replacement, Lester Holt, an award-winning NBC newsman who happens to be African-American?
Let’s take the second question first.
Holt’s ethnicity is not central to this situation, yet it is a big deal within the context of inclusion and diversity, a subject that is as much a third rail in the news industry as economic solvency in the era of waning audiences. Holt is inheriting the anchor role under a cloud of scandal, a situation that is far from ideal.
At the same time, it is cosmic retribution that the on-air talent pool at NBC shook out in such a way that Holt emerges as the best candidate to replace Williams. Until Saturday, when Williams said he was stepping down (apparently temporarily, at least in Williams’ mind, as of that announcement), it was not clear if Williams would remain in the managing editor and anchor roles at “Nightly.” Had Williams remained, it would have been another sign to me and to other journalists with “non-traditional,” aka non-white profiles, that once again a practitioner who had violated journalistic rules was being given a pass largely due to the cloak of White Guy Entitlement that encased him.
To say that some of us suspected that Williams might get a free pass does not prove racial paranoia of black journalists; it is only evidence of the cold hard facts of history. See the recent column by Rachel Swarns at The New York Times on Patricia Smith, a former Boston Globe metro columnist who was fired in 1998 for making up quotes and scenes; Swarns’ column went easy on Mike Barnicle, another Globe metro columnist also fired in the same year for similar ethical breaches.
Barnicle, who has for the past several years perched smugly at the table of “Morning Joe,” an MSNBC marquee weekday news program, did not suffer a period in the professional Wilderness, as was the case with Patricia Smith. Barnicle not only fought The Globe’s initial attempts to ease him from his columnist job, but he belligerently accused the Globe of engaging in a game of “politically correct” scales-balancing; his claims were not true, yet he was supported by Tim Russert of NBC News, radio talk show host Don Imus, and a host of other powerful white guys in the national news scene. He landed a column at The New York Daily News immediately after leaving The Boston Globe, and eventually turned up at MSNBC. Smith, meanwhile, a decorated poet, largely withdrew from the public eye, and after many years struggling financially, landed a job teaching at a state university in New York.
Jayson Blair, Patricia Smith, and Janet Cooke were cast out of the news ecosystem resoundingly, while Barnicle and Stephen Glass have been profiled by top national news outlets and secured employment not long after their respective chicaneries were exposed. Black and other ‘non-traditional’ journalists who have been around long enough to know these stories chapter and verse were wholly justified in sensing that Williams was about to ‘survive’ the exposure of his ethical crisis.
Ethics Problems In the News Biz is Old News — So is Opportunity-Hoarding
By Sunday night, reports indicated that some NBC executives apparently failed to short-circuit Williams’ escalating lies, despite knowing from external sources that Williams was larding it on. Nevertheless, a twisted silver lining, where race and gender inclusion at major news organizations is concerned: The white NBC executives’ protectionist instinct, rooted in gender and racial entitlement as much as in economic concerns, had created an opening, once Williams’ lies were made public, for Holt to claim a leadership role that he had genuinely earned.
The historic track record of opportunity hoarding by white owners, publishers and executives, the shutting out of non-whites and women that has characterized the news business during its century-long rise as a cultural force in America, has never been entirely inchoate: individuals lead newsrooms and the companies that produce news and information, which means that individual choices over many, many decades — even as ‘non-traditional’ journalists like Holt at NBC and Carole Simpson at ABC, gained necessary experience that should have elevated them to top roles — are the reason why there is a dearth of black anchors, top producers, columnists, publishers and the like in all corners of the news business.
As it turns out, at least for the moment, Williams is out, and Holt is now in a situation tangentially similar to that of Dean Baquet at The New York Times. In May 2014, the dismissal of Jill Abramson, the Times’ first woman executive editor, led to the elevation of Baquet, who is African-American and a veteran, award-winning newspaperman. It is important to note that Williams — a well-liked and seemingly untouchable white guy — had been enabled in his more than 10 year-long string of embellishments by the mostly-white members of NBC News’ management.
One could legitimately argue that The New York Times’ publisher also bungled in the initial hiring and then messy firing of Abramson. That ordeal, which played out in May 2014, similarly created a cloud around the promotion of Baquet. That Holt and Baquet ascended to top leadership roles following embarrassing management failures at Establishment news organizations is some kind of rough justice.
Still, for black journalists watching the Williams drama unfold — professionals who have earned their stripes through hard work, strategic career moves, and emotional toughness unknown to most white journalists — it is irony, not schadenfreude, that washes over us at learning that Holt is taking over the “Nightly” anchor duties. However, much the supremacy of network news has diminished in recent years thanks to the Internet, podcasts, and other digital sources of news and information, symbolically, Holt’s assuming the anchor duties at “Nightly” is huge. The anchor role, once the authoritative position viewed as the Voice of God in the news business, suited only for white men, will now, for the first time, be occupied by a black man at NBC. Holt, like Barack Obama cleaning up the dire financial mess left by eight years of Bush Administration’s lax oversight of the financial industry, now faces the task of re-establishing the public’s trust of a storied corporate enterprise…. that is now deeply in the dog house.
Finally, to the first question: Should Williams lose his managing editor and anchor jobs at NBC?
Yes. But I do not believe Williams’ should be cast out of ‘mass media’ as we now know it. Just as I have argued for the redemption of Jayson Blair and Patricia Smith, I believe also that for Williams there is value still to be found in his experience, gravitas, and the high-level skill that it takes to communicate complicated topics clearly and persuasively. That Williams is a tall, handsome white guy who fell prey to ego and insecurity means, obviously, that he will very likely ‘land well,’ in any event, since that is the nature of the protectionist instinct among those who rule Establishment (and ‘Emerging’) news media. And let’s be totally real here: If Mike Barnicle — who got tossed out of The Boston Globe for inventing a story about a dying cancer patient — can be ‘redeemed,’ then surely Williams deserves to return to media in some fashion.
The wielders of Long Knives who have shown up in recent days to stick it to Williams — including Maureen Dowd, who it must be said showed pungent hypocrisy by accusing Williams of being a Fame Whore — would do well to cool their jets. With the hasty click of the SEND button, or the thoughtless last sip of a cocktail, their asses, too, could wind up in the midst of an ethical scandal. Among the colorful Rogues Gallery of journalistic criminals we’ve seen during the last 40 years, not all have deserved total and permanent excommunication. And anyway, for a sector ostensibly devoted to truth-telling and social justice, compassion and equality, such feral behavior really isn’t a good look. Nor is it sustainable.
Amy Alexander is a journalist and author in Maryland. She has written for The Boston Globe, The Nation, and The Washington Post, among other publications. She is author of Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention.