In a Big Think interview, David Westin, who ran ABC News for 14 years, laid out the steps that NBC needs to take to keep Brian Williams at the anchor desk and recover from Choppergate.
David Westin: I think that this particular problem with Brian Williams is part of a larger phenomenon in television news. It's become increasingly under siege from so many alternatives. First with cable news alternatives, and then with the internet and mobile. And that’s put enormous pressure on these organizations. Unfortunately, in my view, the organizations have responded by taking their anchors and their reporters and making them the story far too often. It’s understandable. It’s a marketing decision. It’s a branding decision. But it’s not fundamentally what I believe journalists should be doing. I spent years working with Peter Jennings and Peter believed firmly — and we all embraced — the notion that in the end we’re not the story. We’re reporting the story. And as soon as the journalist becomes the story, you’re in trouble. You have PR staffs and marketing staffs who are coaxing, who are urging, who are reinforcing any story that makes their reporter or their anchor appear larger than life. I don’t know when we decided that reporters have to be war heroes. Reporters don’t fight wars; they report on wars. And that, as I say, is not unique to Brian and is not unique to NBC News. And therefore I am concerned about some of the other news organizations who are so quick to judge.
I can’t predict what will happen to Brian Williams; in fact I don’t think there’s anyone who can predict that right now, because I’m not sure anyone knows what all the facts are. The starting point is to find out what the facts are. What I do anticipate based on what I’ve heard so far is that NBC News will find a way — and I don’t know what that way is; I wouldn’t dare try to tell them what the way is — but I think they need to find a way to send two messages. And this is the hard part. You have to send both messages. Provided Brian comes through this — and based on what I know right now, I would expect him to — you have to reinforce that you still believe in him. That you still value him. That you value all of his years of service and the wonderful journalism he’s done through the years. Number one. And number two: No one is above the truth. This is the number one priority for any news organization, is to have their credibility and their trustworthiness and their relationship with their audience. And therefore they have to find some way of planting a very big flag saying “We believe in Brian, but we really take this terribly seriously. This is more important than anything else we do.”