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Wednesday, Mar 29, 2017
Joe Henderson Columns
COLUMN

Credibility of TV news in doubt long before Williams’ gaffe

It’s not a big deal if Brian Williams eventually is fired, quits, or otherwise stops reading the news to viewers once his six-month suspension is over. I’m not even sure it’s a medium-sized deal.

That may sound harsh, and it’s not personal. As a reader of the day’s events, Williams is superb. His looks, delivery and style helped NBC Nightly News to the top of the ratings heap. From updates about the war on terror to the latest ice storm, he made viewers believe he is in the living room and speaking only with them.

That takes talent, but he messed up. There are consequences for a gaffe on the level that Williams committed.

So, for at least six months, without pay, he won’t be there to look into the camera with that reassuring “it’s all going to be OK” nod. NBC announced that Tuesday night, along with the promise that a review of Williams’ situation “is ongoing.”

Read into that what you will.

No matter how this ends, though, the news doesn’t stop. I don’t watch NBC or any other outlet to be reassured or entertained. I watch to find out what’s going on.

Even in the Internet age, I watch NBC mostly out of habit. I don’t feel an emotional attachment to Williams or anyone else in that position. Reporting or commenting on the news is their job, and that has been going on since the day Moses came down with the inside story from Mount Sinai.

Word is he didn’t use a teleprompter.

What is TV news these days, anyway? Cops, cats and bad weather. During the buildup to the Super Bowl, three major network news shows led with the story of the New England Patriots and deflated footballs. That was the most important story in the world that day?

There still appears to be some standards, though. Williams is accused of committing the journalistic sin of embellishment in telling the tale of how bad people fired on his helicopter and forced it to the ground while he was reporting from Iraq. His bosses at NBC apparently aren’t buying it.

If more examples of truth-stretching surface, six months may turn into six-forever and sidetrack a career where he earns a reported $13 million a year, according to website Celebrity Net Worth.

I would like to say that this will be a wake-up call for television news, but no one in the industry would listen anyway. Exaggeration and showboat antics are the lifeblood of the medium.

A local TV reporter, in a report about how the Florida Department of Children & Families failed 5-year-old Phoebe Jonchuck, noted that “according to a report obtained” by her station, the department messed up.

Um, lots of people “obtained” the report. It was sent out in a mass emailing.

Because of the faux urgent world of television, though, that’s not how the game is played. News directors order reporters to make it sound like they are the only ones in the world with this information. They CARE!!! They care about YOU!!! Being informative and believable stopped being enough when news morphed into entertainment.

People have asked how Williams can have credibility after this. It’s a legitimate question, but Americans are a forgiving bunch, especially when you are likable. Besides, most of the time his role is offering a short introduction to a story that involves actual reporting by professionals. How much credibility does that take?

You want to see a guy in real harm’s way on TV? Check out Williams’ colleague Richard Engel. He does superb reporting from dangerous places. He tells and shows me things I don’t know. That’s what I want from the news.

Give me facts. Give me analysis. Hold leaders accountable. Lose the slow jams.

But the show goes on. If eventually Williams is gone from the anchor chair for good, someone will take his place.

I am sure they will be able to read just fine.

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