Good riddance, Brian Williams: Why the real scandal was his contempt for journalism

Williams is reportedly all but gone from nightly news. As he exits, we must not forget the ugly lesson he taught us

Published June 9, 2015 8:19PM (EDT)

Brian Williams                       (AP/Evan Agostini)
Brian Williams (AP/Evan Agostini)

Well, that's that. Barring some huge surprise, Brian Williams is not going to be coming back to the "NBC Nightly News." Get out your black clothes! Cover your mirrors! Fly your flags at half-mast! (Or, like, don't do any of that.)

It was always going to be this way, really. The expectation that Williams might return to the anchor chair seemed fairly ridiculous from the moment that NBC suspended him for his not-infrequent habit of completely lying about his many experiences as a macho news warrior. In what world could the network possibly bring him back without torching what is left of its credibility? Between the Ann Curry debacle, the David Gregory disaster and now the Williams fiasco, NBC News has been through a hellish few years. No sane group of people would choose to prolong that misery for even one second longer than necessary. If NBC knows what's good for it—and that's never a sure thing—it will cut its ties completely with Williams instead of bringing him back in another capacity, as CNN's Brian Stelter has indicated the network is contemplating doing.

So it is bye-bye to BriWi and hello to Lester Holt (LeHo? Maybe not), who is the very definition of a safe pair of hands. Holt had been toiling away in just about every runner-up slot on NBC for years (weekend "Nightly" anchor, weekend "Today" anchor, "Dateline" host) when the network drafted him to stand in for Williams. Since then he's just about maintained NBC's ratings lead over ABC, though the latter now regularly wins the key A25-54 demo. There's every indication that Holt will be a competent, reliable, low-key anchor, a Scott Pelley type for NBC. Plus, he'd make history as the first black solo host of a nightly news show.

Just as important, Holt has none of Williams' destructive obsession with entertainment. Williams went on "30 Rock" and "SNL" and lobbied to host the "Tonight" show; when Holt did a sketch with Seth Meyers, the big joke was that he is manically obsessed with the news. The flashiest thing he's ever done is play bass one time with The Roots. NBC is surely looking for someone who actively avoids the kinds of messes Williams got himself into.

The world moves quickly. Holt will get down to the business of giving his dwindling, aging audience a small slice of the news for 20 minutes a night. Williams will soon be forgotten. That won't be a tragedy.

What would be a tragedy is if we forget how hollowed-out, antiquated and stupid the Williams episode revealed our entire anchor culture to be. The biggest scandal about Williams' tenure was not his lies about Iraq. It was his contempt for journalism. In March, New York magazine's Gabriel Sherman uncovered a disturbing tendency of Williams' to avoid hard-hitting news:

Multiple sources told me that former NBC investigative reporters Michael Isikoff and Lisa Myers battled with Williams over stories. In February 2013, Isikoff failed to interest Williams in a piece about a confidential Justice Department memo that justified killing American citizens with drones. He instead broke the story on Rachel Maddow...“He didn’t want to put stories on the air that would be divisive,” a senior NBC journalist told me. According to a source, Myers wrote a series of scathing memos to then–NBC senior vice-president Antoine Sanfuentes documenting how Williams suppressed her stories.

Williams was sold to us—as all anchors are—as the ultimate embodiment of journalistic ideals, a trusted, caring confidante who would guide us through the world. In reality, he was an egomaniacal showboater who was more concerned with going on Jimmy Fallon and trying to get Tom Brokaw to like him than in informing viewers about what was happening on the planet. Holt may be a completely different type of individual, but if the Williams story teaches us anything, it should be to never again put any of the people we see on the kind of pedestal he fell so brutally off of.

By Jack Mirkinson

Jack Mirkinson is a writer living in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @jackmirkinson.

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Brian Williams Lester Holt Media Criticism Nbc News