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Brian Williams gaffe leads him to brink of public impeachment

Will Brian Williams hold his job at NBC?

Producer Jane Craig: "You could get fired for things like that."

Newscaster Tom Grunick: "I got promoted for things like that."

"Broadcast News" (1987)

We cast our TV newscasters much the way we cast our political leaders. It's as easy to imagine Brian Williams as a governor as anchor of the "NBC Nightly News," maybe easier after recent events.

News readers and newsmakers are expected to be witty and wise, warm but forceful, attractive. They have to appear comfortable in any setting, in casual duds or business attire. They're to speak authoritatively on every subject and unfailingly exude unflappable confidence. They must not make mistakes but always come across as human.

We also expect them to continuously seek our backing, but criticize them for campaigning continuously.

If he hadn't been seeking constantly to win hearts and minds, Williams might not be on the brink of impeachment from the high office at NBC News he won and maintained in part because of popularity garnered as a late-night talk-show raconteur.

One of his stump speeches, a story about his experience covering the military in Iraq, got better with each telling and morphed into the realm of fantasy. It came to elevate what he himself went through, and in doing so insulted those who actually faced down enemy fire. Whether he was conscious of this as it happened is not known. He says no.

A politician might skate on something like this more easily than a journalist. History shows many have, regardless of their affiliation.

But a newscaster is expected to tell stories accurately. If Williams is seen as an unreliable narrator of his own life, then what of the lives, events and issues of others? NBC promos tout his experience and the trust viewers have in him. He has undercut both.

Williams' apology, citing the fog of memory, claiming he misremembered, reeked of ineffective PR spin. It did nothing to address this core competency issue and only spurred more questions.

Critics want to know about other incidents Williams has recounted over the years, such as whether he saw a body floating outside his New Orleans hotel room after Hurricane Katrina, whether he was robbed at gunpoint in his youth, even the story he has told about saving a puppy or two when he was a young volunteer firefighter. They may check out, but they must be checked.

NBC News said it was assigning its in-house investigative unit to look into the situation and Williams, in his role as managing editor of "Nightly News," said he would sideline himself as an anchor. But this self-dealing merely reinforced the idea that they are riding out the storm rather than being made to account for themselves.

If anyone knows how a story can blow up with even the faintest whiff of scandal, it should be those of us in the media. Look at the overcoverage of Rep. Aaron Schock's "Downton Abbey" office decor last week. There's at least one of those every week, often more. Some stories fade after a news cycle or two. Some claim casualties.

But the media glass-house gang is always surprised when it gets got in its own game of gotcha. Fairly or not, Williams is hardly the first newsman to be accused of puffing up a story about himself. (Google "Bill O'Reilly New York Mets tryout," for example, and see what comes up.) Sometimes they carry weight, other times not.

Some will argue it doesn't matter in Williams' case.

ABC News reorganized the role of its nightly newscast anchor after Diane Sawyer stepped down, and George Stephanopoulos gets to anchor some of the heavy duty special-events coverage without what used to be seen as the top job. David Muir got that post at ABC and a lot of Americans would be hard-pressed to pick him out of a police lineup.

But don't buy into the argument that the nightly newscasts don't matter. Their audience is older but a prime target for pharmaceutical ads. The size of their audience, while in decline, also is not insignificant.

In the fourth quarter of last year, NBC averaged 9.1 million total viewers, ABC 8.5 million and CBS 7 million. Among the money demo, viewers ages 25 to 54, NBC had 2.13 million viewers, a hair behind ABC's 2.14 million but ahead of CBS' 1.7 million viewers.

Cable news shows don't draw like that.

Other shows, such as Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central and John Oliver's "Last Week Tonight" on HBO, get a lot of attention but fewer viewers.

One imagines NBCUniversal and parent Comcast are conducting focus-group research and polling to measure the commercial ramifications of Williams' gaffe, analyzing whether it will cost them money and what the expense of replacing Williams might be.

It's not that these stories are, in and of themselves, journalistic malpractice, but a pattern would be troubling. If the sentiment and cost benefits line up, say hello to Lester Holt as the new anchor of "Nightly News."

But it's just as likely that Williams will continue in his post for a while.

Americans by and large long ago accepted the idea that today's pols are not exactly Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, and that today's newscasters won't be Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Partisans will either support or deride their person when found wanting, which is the limbo in which Williams finds himself.

More than 25 years ago, in the movie "Broadcast News," a romantic comedy set against the evolving economics and expectations of the network TV news business, the rise of a handsome but not terribly bright newsman named Tom Grunick, played by William Hurt, is fueled by his on-camera performance skills.

Viewers loved the guy, though some colleagues bristled at his shortcomings and willingness to cross what they considered black-and-white ethical lines in a bid to win the TV audience. Some moviegoers in fact were puzzled that faking a tear to convey emotion was seen as a capital offense.

But when Grunick in fact did get his network's top anchor job, he recognized that to be a credible anchor he would have to depart from precedent. A separate managing editor would have to be hired.

Maybe that should have been prefaced with a "Spoiler Alert" warning.

philrosenthal@tribpub.com

Twitter @phil_rosenthal

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