Don't Fire Brian Williams: His Mistakes Reveal Media "Credibility Problem"

By Doctor Comrade

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams continues to come under fire for misleading his audiences about his experiences in Iraq, New Orleans, and possibly other times as well. In response, NBC has suspended Williams for the next six months, causing some in the media to call for his immediate dismissal, and others to speculate if he can regain the trust of viewers after his forced hiatus. Don Kaplan argued "But they also put the reputation of NBC News in danger because someone at Williams' level needs to be held to a higher standard. News anchors, especially one at his level are not supposed to tell half truths or embellish the facts like a politician."

Even more damning are reports from the Washington Post that NBC had already started investigating Williams for "exaggerations and self-aggrandizement": "The suspension was the culmination of a long period of internal concerns. NBC officials had been warned for some time about Williams." Other journalists at NBC said "they were not surprised by the allegations that Williams had inflated his involvement in news stories and what he supposedly witnessed while on assignment. They said his exaggerations were an open secret at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and became an inside joke."

However, what's most troubling about the Williams story is that NBC's internal investigation didn't become public knowledge until after an outside, independent publication  Stars and Stripes criticized Williams' embellishments. That Washington Post article contends that "red flags" had been raised about Williams at least a year before his suspension. Yet NBC also stated that it suspended Williams during its current investigation. One anonymous executive said “We didn’t want to force him off the air, because we didn’t want to be perceived as rushing to judgment. All the facts weren’t in. But you can’t have an anchor on the air while his judgment and credibility are being questioned on every front page in America." [emphasis mine]

Williams wasn't suspended until the controversy, which makes me wonder if Williams wouldn't have been suspended if the public was never made aware of the investigation. More importantly, NBC left Williams on the air for a year after it began its investigation, and only suspended him once allegations came to the public's attention in the last couple weeks. This is clearly an indictment of NBC's journalistic integrity and the credibility of one of America's top newsmen.

But all that said, don't fire Brian Williams.

Not because I think he can redeem himself. In fact, I believe the opposite. This episode will taint the rest of his career: everything he writes or broadcasts for the rest of his life will bear the smudge of incredibility. This is why Williams poses a "credibility problem" for NBC and the news media in general. Americans are familiar with Jon Stewart's nightly undermining of Fox News' credibility (including such memorable segments as "Chaos on Bullshit Mountain"), as well as Stewart's attacks on the news media in general. And the Williams' scandal has been a boon for Right Wing pundits, who accuse NBC of waffling while NBC allows its MSNBC anchors to attack Fox's credibility. The Williams scandal has become a microcosm of America's media credibility problem: the news media is not a source of facts or journalistic integrity, but an ideologically constrained echo-chamber for punditry, demagoguery, and insidious nationalism.

NBC should keep Brian Williams as its main anchor not because it's in their self interest (because it isn't), but because Brian Williams can perform the ideological task of "the news" for a newly critically-conscious public. The presence of this disgraced anchor would perform a kind of reverse simulation, a "behind-the-scenes" view for all Americans to witness the production of narratives and facts in the specific context of journalism. Williams created a fictional account of the helicopter incident to increase his credibility, strengthen the perception that he had truly witnessed the horrifying reality of the Iraq War, and reinforce the notion that on-site reporters objectively portray a distant reality. Now that his credibility is ruined, the news-consumer can become critically aware that they are partaking in a simulation of "reality," served to them pre-fabricated by an ideologically committed media.

This is the precession of simulacra, which is to say that the news media simulations no longer reflect a "profound reality" in the sense of truth, which journalism, through objectivity, purports to do. Rather, the news media has engaged in a "production of the real," which masks how the simulation bears "no relation to any reality whatsoever." For whatever motivation ascribed to the media, either profit or production of the social order, the simulators have effectively masked how the news does not cover a profound reality but an ideologically structured version of a tenable and tangible reality, a usable "reality," a series of narratives that can be deployed for certain objectives. In this case, the commercialization of the news seems to dictate that the news media tells stories in order to capitalize on revenue. In order to capitalize, they mobilize familiar narratives that the consuming public can digest. The news media relies on credibility, the trust they have earned from the public, and firsthand reporting appears to guarantee the credibility of a story. Reporters report their eyewitness testimony to an audience that is primed for reception of that reporter's observed facts, and the audience expects an accurate portrayal of reality because that is what the news is supposed to do. The narrative technique of news, the socially inscribed role of the news, the widespread perception of the news as a purveyor of accurate event descriptions, reifies the means by which the media creates capital.

What has been shown is that NBC and Brain Williams did not broadcast an accurate portrayal of reality. Williams has exposed a fissure in this simulation. His public shame reveals how the news media exploited his falsehoods for credibility, gaining ratings, viewers, and re-inscriptions of a social order based upon authorial expertise. Williams was entrusted both by his bosses and the American public to educate the viewing audience. The fiction of his lessons demonstrates not his own fallibility, but rather the news industry's simulation dimension. As Baudrillard presciently argued, "What else do the media dream of besides creating the event simply by their presence? Everyone decries it, but everyone is secretly fascinated by this eventuality. Such is the logic of simulacra, it is no longer that of divine predestination, it is that of the precession of models, but it is just as inexorable. And it is because of this that events no longer have meaning: it is not that they are insignificant in themselves, it is that they were preceded by the model, with which their processes only coincided."

This model of simulacra precedes the news itself, wherein the stories of the news merely fill in the gaps of a pre-existing narrative structure. In my estimation, the newscaster, the reporter, the anchor, inscribes a narrative of "credibility," usually through witnessing an event firsthand or garnering the trust of an audience over the course of their career. Williams became a trusted anchor, someone who fulfilled the narrative impulses of journalism in a very particular ideological role, but also someone who fulfilled the expectations of the news consumer. In a competitive marketplace, viewers will consume the news they believe is most trustworthy; Williams delivered that through the perception of his credibility. His version of the news, the NBC version of the news, was consumed because their viewers believed that NBC Nightly News fulfilled the socially inscribed role of the news.

In order for this simulation to continue to be obvious to the public, he must keep his job. His visage on the screen, his nightly invitation into the televisions of his audience, will serve as a nightly reminder that the news media is a simulation. Of course some people will grow to trust him again, or maybe they never lost their trust in him. But the traces of his deceit will hang in the social discourse for the rest of his career, and will intensely resonate when his suspension expires, if he gets caught fabricating again, and when he retires.

Firing him will only re-inscribe the credibility of his replacement, reinforcing the simulacra. NBC will be able to contend that they handled the problem, they disposed of a less-than-trustworthy anchor and have thereby replaced him with a new, definitely-trustworthy substitute. They will be able to claim that the credibility problem was due to Williams, not the concept of the news, not their fact-checkers, and certainly not NBC's journalistic integrity. NBC will rightly be able to claim that they're the people who correctly fired disgraced journalist Brian Williams! Though his disgrace will leave a trace on their programs, NBC as an institution will remain unchanged and unscathed by masking their simulation behind the made-up face of their newest anchor.