Why It’s So Hard to Forgive Brian Williams

The Less-Than-Honest TV News Anchor Will Be Leaving NBC After 28 Years    

11/11/21 – – Brian Williams announced this week that he will be leaving NBC after 28 years with the network. Over the last five years he’s built a loyal audience for his late-night news and commentary show “The 11th Hour” on MSNBC, but has not fully recovered from a reputational crisis that seriously damaged his career.

You may recall that in 2015 NBC suspended Williams, who had been hosting the number-one-rated “NBC Nightly News” for 10 years, without pay for six months when it became clear that he had embellished recollections of his reporting during the Iraq War. His assertion that he narrowly escaped death while riding in a helicopter hit by RPG fire was called into question when the pilot of the helicopter that had actually been forced to make an emergency landing that day explained, “Mr. Williams wasn’t in or near our aircraft at the time it was hit.”

It also came to light that Williams had exaggerated a bit about his experiences in New Orleans in 2005, reporting on Hurricane Katrina. After Williams recalled seeing a body floating by his hotel in the French Quarter, Lt. Gen. Russel L Honoré, who coordinated military relief efforts after the storm, challenged the veracity of the account, pointing out that there was only minor flooding around the Ritz-Carlton: “If he was a newsman and saw a body floating by his hotel, why didn’t he go grab it? Why didn’t he get somebody and report it?”

When Williams began his six-month banishment, he promised, “Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”

As Williams’ career demonstrates, trust, once lost, is a very difficult thing to win back.

Having been shamed, he was replaced as “NBC Nightly News” anchor by Lester Holt. After apologizing and surviving an internal investigation, he was assigned a much-diminished role on MSNBC. And in 2016, he became host of “The 11th Hour.” Nice gig, but a far cry from being the guy who successfully replaced Tom Brokaw to become anchor and managing editor of NBC News, the guy who won a Peabody award in recognition of “the highest levels of journalistic excellence,” the guy awarded the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism by Arizona State University.

Why has his rebound been so difficult?

In Chapter 4 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“How Crises Typically Play Out”) we analyze the powerful role betrayal plays in determining the severity and duration of a crisis. In the case of companies and institutions, the closer they come to violating their core purpose and promises, the more damaging a crisis will be. That’s one of the reasons the Catholic Church’s pedophilia crisis has been so horrendous. It’s why the accounting firm Arthur Andersen ceased to exist after mishandling its audit responsibilities with Enron.

The same holds true for individuals. Since the advent of radio and television, news anchors have been among the most trusted people in society. Their core promise is to tell us the truth. To be effective, they must be trusted. The revelations regarding Brian Williams’ propensity to exaggerate and embellish were seen by the American public as nothing short of betrayal.

In announcing his departure, Williams said that he will “pop up” again somewhere after spending more time with his family. After betrayal, there is no shortcut to forgiveness or redemption. He’s come a long way since his fall in 2015, but still has a lot of work to do on his “career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”

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