Can Brian Williams emerge from career purgatory?
Welcome to the question everyone in TV news is asking. It's the one the new chairman of NBC News, Andy Lack, is asking too.
So, let's ask -- and answer -- right now:
He just needs to follow the eight-step program (outlined below).
Allow me to admit at the outset of this post that I am in the minority on this. Get 10 people from television news into one room and there is almost certainly one topic they can mutually agree upon -- the utter futility of the task before Lack.
There are all sorts of reasons why, and I'm happy to lay out just a few of those.
Foremost, Williams lied.
There are few sins less burdensome, less exculpatory, than this, as far as the anchor of the most-watched nightly news program is concerned.
Here's the simple calculus -- if you are paid $10 million a year to do this gig, the only unassailable part of the transaction is to tell the truth and nothing but the truth. It is the first role of the anchor, and all the other roles that follow. Truth is the fundamental value, the hard coin of this realm. Any deviation from that is grounds for dismissal, as I've argued in prior posts.
There is no excuse for lying about one's professional reporting duties. None. Ever.
At this point, some readers are scoffing -- what about "O'Reilly," referring of course to the web of half-truths and balderdash critics have uncovered about the Fox News host in recent weeks. My response: O'Reilly is a pundit, an entertainer, an ideologue. You go in expecting some embellishment to his “personal narrative.” It's all part of the bargain.
Back to Williams: He can emerge from this -- if “this” doesn't kill him, this could even make him stronger. I don't, by the way, think he can come back as solo anchor. I do, however, think there's a better alternative to that.
If Williams decides that he wants to come back, then he can.
But If he decides that he'd rather replace Jon Stewart, on Letterman, or maybe do stand-up in Atlantic City, or a "slow-jammin' the news" show from Vegas, then he can't come back. It's over.
One or the other.
This choice is up to Williams.
What is in his heart and his head? If the answer is "yes" to "comeback," then... the eight-point program:
1.) Reshape his narrative...It’s Williams’ own story and he needs to tell it truthfully, but also cast the story in terms that an average person can understand. "Yes, I got caught up in the story of the helicopter brought down by enemy fire. Yes, I got pulled into the excitement of it. Yes, I embellished . Did I go too far? Was it meant to boost my stature? Yup. Do I regret it? Of course. But was this a human mistake by someone who's made his share of them? Above all, that.
"The story was never meant to 'borrow' valor but in some small part of my mind, I really believed that it was meant to confer valor -- on those going through this every single day. I can't help whether anyone chooses to believe that or not, but I do believe that my record of speaking to veterans' groups and covering vet affairs bears this out."
2.) Williams needs to go on the time-honored "listening tour," better known as "eating crow." The mea culpa whistle-stop tour needs to begin internally at NBC, then he must go before veterans groups. And by "listen." I do mean listen to what people have to say -- their concerns, their thoughts about the embellishment/lie and its damage. Be open to criticism. Listen, then talk -- about what happened (See: 1.)
Next, apologize for the damage this may have done to colleagues, and apologize for how it devalued the sacrifice of service members. Apologize for hurting the institution of news, the role of anchor…
Even apologize for going to a sporting event with a major celebrity (Tom Hanks) right before making that last half-baked pseudo-apology on the air.
"Sorry" will go a long way here. So will sincerity.
3.) Be prepared for the rogue stories to begin appearing -- first on “Page 6, then TMZ, then the mainstream...They'll filter all sorts of impressions, and ridicule will be the first line of attack. "Lyin' Brian eats crow," etc.
But within all of those accounts will be the stirrings of a new storyline -- the comeback one -- which is utterly irresistible to the media. Also, this story is far superior to the ongoing "Brian in hiding" one.
Moreover, readers (and viewers) are always primed for the “comeback story” -- as one of those primal rites-of-passage narratives of American life.
They have strong opinions about Williams -- but I'll bet that most who wanted Williams fired or cast out will also be the ones most intrigued about this re-entry effort.
Meanwhile, Williams needs to maintain a studied silence as far as media interviews are concerned. Because...
4.) The "60 Minutes" interview. This is the coming-out party, the full absolution in the one place where absolution can be conferred publicly. "60" will be considered -- even before the interview -- front-page news. The interview itself of course is huge.
The value of "60" vastly outweighs an internal round of interviews at NBC News.
"60" offers the imprimatur of seriousness, objectivity and history.
There won't be a sense that this will be an inside spin job, or a hit job either. "60" will cast the story for what it is -- a fall from grace, and the potential rise.
Either Charlie Rose or Lesley Stahl should do the interview. My preference here? Stahl.
5.) The "day after" interview: This is when "The Today Show" encounter arrives, the morning after the "60" one. One on one with Matt, Savannah, and even Al. Old friends get together, but these old friends have questions too.
6.) The late-night talk shows -- these will arrive that week too -- and because David Letterman stands above all here (the lie told on “Late Show” was the rocket booster fuel after all) that means the "60" interview has to be timed to arrive in early May, before Dave's departure.
Next, "The Daily Show." Then Kimmel, and finally, "Tonight," where Williams can can be assured of Jimmy saying, "oh gosh, we LOVE YOU..."
Take all the ridicule, laugh at it, absorb it, laugh some more.
Ridicule in this context has its own value -- because it reveals the side of a personality that doesn't take itself too seriously. Ridicule can also be self-cleansing without turning into self-abnegation.
And -- by the way -- Williams should cut the routines. No funny prepared lines. No slow-jammin' with Jimmy.
You, Mr. Williams, are on a rebuild project -- not to become the next Kanye.
7.) Now is the moment to move past the confessional stage to the work stage -- quite literally, get back to work. Not as an anchor, at least immediately, but as a reporter, in the field, and not domestically either.
In the United States, wherever Williams goes, he will be the story. But overseas? Just an other anchorman with a camera crew in tow.
This is the most vital part of the comeback tour; there is no “half-way” here, no phoniness.
This is the moment where the rebuilding begins in earnest.
Williams is now in the field, doing what professionals like -- for example -- like Tim Hetherington used to do. (Hetherington, the war photojournalist, who died covering the civil war in Libya in 2011, and who said of his life’s work: “I want to record world events, big History told in the form of a small history, the personal perspective that gives my life meaning and significance. My work is all about building bridges between myself and the audience.”)
Resulting stories should be deeply reported, and intelligent -- about subjects of vital importance to the military, and of real consequence to Americans.
Some may appear on "Nightly." Some on "Today," and extended versions on "Dateline,.” and many will appear on MSNBC, too.
Slowly, the idea that the guy doing the reporting had once done something foolish- will seem a somewhat distant, possibly even irrelevant, picture of who he really is -- a serious person now embarked upon the work he was born to do...
8.) Finally, after many months, maybe even a year, the announcement -- Brian Williams will rejoin "Nightly News" as anchor, but ..not to replace Lester Holt, rather to complement Holt.
This will be a "Huntley Brinkley" for the 21st century, “Williams/Holt” or “Holt/Williams,” with anchors in different cities, or even on different continents, or wherever a major story happens to be breaking.
The sum of these two parts will exceed anything the other broadcasts have, because this team will have experience, depth, versatility and an abiding sense of TV history news.
This structure could conceivably free the broadcast from the confines of the single-anchor model, too and open it to new vistas...opportunities.
And that's the eight point program.
Do all this,. and then...someday, somewhere, the viewer of "Nightly News" -- let's call them Mabel and Fred -- will be watching the program, and hold this brief telling exchange:
-- "Hey Mabel, didn't Williams make up some story once?"
-- "Yeah, but I don't remember what it was...who cares anyway."