Brian Williams’s just-announced resignation from NBC doesn’t really matter. Other than depriving MSNBC of a familiar, marketable face at a time of plummeting ratings, and when a number of its major stars have one foot out the door, it’s not going to change anything about the network. Nor is it going to change anything about the poisonous, profit-driven dynamics of cable news, easily the most powerful disseminators of misinformation in today’s politics, something Williams participated in with relish.
But it’s worth dwelling on, because Williams embodies one of the more noxious and pervasive trends in not just US news media, but American life more generally: the normalization of serious ethical breaches and the lack of any serious accountability for people with wealth, power, or influence.
As you’ll read and hear today in many stories covering Williams’s resignation, he was suspended and demoted by NBC in 2015 for “exaggerating an anecdote about a helicopter ride in Iraq” or telling “an inaccurate story about his helicopter’s having been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.” This is technically true, but the facts of the scandal here are presented so misleadingly that it rivals Williams’s own infamous bullshittery.
For one, Williams didn’t just tell a story inaccurately one time, as this phrasing suggests. Williams told the story at least half a dozen times over the years, embellishing its details with each retelling, until he eventually started claiming it was his helicopter that had been fired on, not a different helicopter an hour ahead of his, as was the reality.
Secondly, it wasn’t just this one story. When outraged military veterans pointed out that Williams was lying about the incident, a months-long NBC investigation soon uncovered at least eleven other similar self-aggrandizing lies Williams had told about other incidents — which they didn’t release publicly, but compiled in a “lengthy file and video,” the Washington Post reported at the time. Reporters dug up examples independently anyway: that he was at the Berlin Wall when it fell; that he witnessed a man kill himself in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina; that an Israeli helicopter he was riding in came under Hezbollah rocket fire; and more.
Though Williams took himself off his anchor’s chair voluntarily, he didn’t fully take responsibility. In a statement on the Iraq helicopter episode, he insisted that he had “told the story correctly for years before [he] told it incorrectly,” that he “was not trying to mislead people,” and that “it came from a sloppy choice of words.”
More importantly, NBC chose to respond to one of their most trusted, well-known anchors publicly discrediting himself with a nonpunishment for the ages. Williams was first suspended without pay from the NBC Nightly News anchor’s desk for six months — unpleasant, but less harsh when you remember Williams was making in the ballpark of $15 million a year at that point.
An Unconditional Pardon
Though he never made it back to the high-rating, prime-time spot, new NBC News chair Andrew Lack decided he would save his friend’s career by plopping Williams at MSNBC, a place where, presumably, truth and credibility don’t matter. Lack declared Williams’s recent scandal was “ancient history,” and before long Williams was making between $8 and $10 million a year, a number that’s reportedly dropped to somewhere around $6 million in recent years. At a time when the median pay for journalists was less than $40,000, Williams’s punishment for publicly lying was to be paid as a multimillionaire.
The entire episode, instantly forgiven and entirely forgotten within a few years, arguably started one of the more deplorable and damaging trends that’s taken hold of US media in the Donald Trump era. It was only in 2004 that decades-long CBS anchor Dan Rather and four others lost their jobs thanks largely to their inability to prove the authenticity of documents they had used in a story charging George W. Bush had secured a spot in the National Guard through political connections before going AWOL for a year. Eleven years after this controversy, outright lying couldn’t even get Williams booted from his network.
Since then, with much of legacy media sorting itself into partisan factions serving only one slice of the news-consuming public, the Williams playbook is now the norm. Actually, that’s not really true — while Williams’s scandal was a major controversy that saw him at least nominally get punished, such scandals now crest and break rapidly, quickly receding from memory, with no consequences whatsoever.
No Isolated Incident
When MSNBC anchor Joy Reid’s decade-old homophobic blog posts were unearthed in 2018, Reid, instead of owning up to and apologizing for them, as she already had in a separate but identical incident a year earlier, concocted an absurd lie that hackers had painstakingly hacked and altered the Wayback Machine’s archives to quietly make her look more bigoted, presumably in case anyone happened to one day look up her since-deleted blog on the site and find them. Not only did she suffer no consequences, but within two years she was promoted.
Nothing, too, has happened to CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, despite the raft of ethical lines he crossed when it came to his brother, Andrew, the former governor of New York. First, Chris Cuomo, with the full blessing of his network, performed in a series of faux-adversarial, comedic interviews with his brother over the course of the pandemic, softening the ruthless and authoritarian politician’s image while distracting from the mounting corruption and mismanagement scandals bubbling up around his office. Later, the New York attorney general’s investigation into his brother’s sexual harassment revealed Cuomo had been secretly working with the governor’s strategy team on how to respond to the allegations. More recently, Cuomo himself has been accused of sexual harassment.
CNN has stood by Cuomo, refusing to discipline him (though clearly, the people have spoken, because Cuomo’s ratings have hit an all-time low).
Of course, this freedom from accountability for their talking heads isn’t evenly applied by the networks, and if you look closely, you can start to see a pattern. Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN three years ago over a United Nations speech he’d delivered calling for Palestinian freedom. Rather alleged in a lawsuit that the chairman of Viacom, CBS’s parent company, had said a Bush victory would help the company and that it was “important to Viacom to have good relations with the Oval Office.” “Under corporate ownership, when finances are threatened, the media behaved like Exxon or BP or any other big company,” Rather’s former producer said, reflecting on her firing years later.
Figures like Phil Donahue, Jesse Ventura, and Ashleigh Banfield were all removed by CNN or MSNBC for their criticism of Bush’s wars, while MSNBC later purged left-leaning hosts Cenk Uygur and Ed Schultz. Uygur says he was told by the network’s president to book more Republicans and that “we’re the establishment,” while Schultz charged he was fired shortly after the network killed his planned broadcast of Bernie Sanders’s announcement speech. Meanwhile, think of the countless other, less famous journalists who have been outright fired for far less than what Williams did — the reporters who have lost jobs because of old offensive tweets or past support for Palestinian rights.
The rules seem clear: Lie publicly or cross major journalistic ethical lines, and as long as you’re a well-connected, big-time anchor, you’ll keep making millions. Just don’t dare take a position outside of these networks’ narrow ideological boundaries or do anything that might jeopardize their profits — that would be truly unacceptable.
Brian Williams ushered in our new era of media unaccountability. But of course, this neither begins nor ends with him, nor with the US press. In a world where Bush administration war criminals are rehabilitated as elder statesmen, lawbreakers in the national security state are turned into heroic defenders of justice, and the superrich openly indulge in crimes that they’re barely punished for, Williams was just one minor reminder that those in the upper tiers of American life live by a different set of rules than the rest of us.