Blurring the Lines

As Brian Williams learned, news and entertainment are a tricky mix when credibility is at stake.

Brian Williams debarks from a military helicopter at Camp Liberty in Baghdad in March 2007 while reporting on the Iraq war for NBC Nightly News.
Photo by Jeff Riggins/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Brian Williams seemed to have everything a professional journalist could desire: universal respect, a strong hand in editorial content on a major media outlet, and a multimillion dollar contract. On top of that, he was able to dabble in entertainment as a guest on popular programs like Late Show with David Letterman and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. A master storyteller, he could also make us laugh.

But for Williams, it all came tumbling down when he went too far in his story telling. Some say he embellished the truth when he repeatedly talked about being on a military helicopter that came under enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. Others say he simply lied.

Williams’s explanation fell flat. In fact, it opened the floodgates for accusations that he stretched the truth in other situations, such as reporting on Hurricane Katrina.

Currently under a six-month suspension without pay, Williams is sitting on the sidelines, wondering, as we all are, whether he will ever return as anchor of NBC Nightly News.

Williams isn’t the first journalist to blur the lines between news and entertainment. Nor is he the first high-profile news personality to feel pressured by a major news organization to become a celebrity in his own right. But that doesn’t mean those who have long respected Williams aren’t disappointed by his actions.

“I always thought of him as the perfect blend of hard journalism and entertainment,” says Bob Mann, professor and chair of communication arts at Caldwell University and host of Let’s Consider the Source, a weekly media-issues talk show on Sirius XM Insight Channel 121. “Williams never let his comedy into his news broadcast. There was a wall between the two. He could kill on SNL, 30 Rock or The Daily Show. The lines of demarcation were always clear…It’s a shame he discredited himself in another way, because on the issue of news versus entertainment, he had it just right.”

Still, that balancing game of news and entertainment is a slippery slope. I doubt anyone can get it just right.

For Merrill Brown, director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University, the Williams incident raises a broader issue. “The entire television-news establishment went way too far in their support of U.S. military actions post 9/11,” says Brown. “Questions about the Iraq war weren’t asked, and the broadcast and cable networks and their anchors often spoke of ‘we’ in covering military action.  On-air graphics featured waving flags and sloganeering in support of U.S. military action. Too many in the media had blinders on about the initial war efforts. Williams was no exception.”

Williams is a Jersey guy, so his fall from grace is especially sad for those of us who had looked upon him with Jersey pride. “I loved that Williams, in the aftermath of Sandy, would always inject his self-revelation that the storm had destroyed parts of what he had loved as a child,” says Mann. “That personal angle made me turn to him for the Sandy news because he seemed to truly feel it.”

Will Williams regain his anchor job? The damage has been great, but Brown says there is a road back. “Williams, NBC News and the public would all benefit from the establishment of an independent investigative panel to assess Williams’s work and review NBC News practices,” says Brown. That would be preferable to the NBC investigative unit currently looking into his actions. “If an independent investigation says Williams’s improprieties were limited rather than extensive and systemic, and he answers all questions about the allegations, then he has a chance to return,” says Brown. “If he doesn’t do so, he’ll not return.”

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