Brian Wiliams And The Problems At NBC News

Vanity Fair Brian Wilson

Vanity Fair has a fascinating article on Brian Williams and NBC News. Here are just a few of the highlights:

Much of the blame is placed on Comcast–an easy target to blame:

Since Comcast took control of NBC, the network’s news division—famously termed Comcast’s “crown jewel” by C.E.O. Brian Roberts—has endured one debacle after another. “When Comcast took over, they had the No. 1 morning show, the No. 1 Sunday show, and the No. 1 evening broadcast,” says a former top NBC executive. “That’s all completely fallen apart. I don’t know how you blame anyone but Comcast and the people it brought in. It’s been a nightmare.”

Behind the scenes much of the blame has been laid at the feet of three executives: Turness, a British-trained newcomer to U.S. television; Fili, who had virtually no experience in journalism; and Fili’s boss, the steely, driven C.E.O. Comcast installed to run NBCUniversal, Steve Burke. Under Burke the network has done well overall—its ratings have rebounded from last to first in the coveted 18–49 demographic, and NBCUniversal’s profits were up 18 percent last year—but he and his deputies, their critics charge, time and again proved unable to rein in the news division’s high-priced talent. “News is a very particular thing, NBC is a very particular beast, and Deborah, well, she really doesn’t have a fucking clue,” says a senior NBC executive involved in recent events. “She’s letting the inmates run the asylum. You have kids? Well, if you let them, they’ll have ice cream every night. Same thing in TV. If you let the people on air do what they want, whenever they want, this is what happens.”

The problem is also attributed to Brian Williams being more interested in corporate politics than national politics or foreign affairs:

One might expect that, in the wake of Williams’s suspension, his colleagues would be brimming with stories of other fanciful tales he told. That’s not the case. There are a few tales, it’s true, but when asked for the unvarnished truth about Williams, the two topics people at NBC News return to again and again are these: his prowess as a bureaucratic infighter and his limited interest in the kind of “heavy” news topics and investigative pieces that had long been championed by such NBC stalwarts as Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert.

“What always bothered Tim was Brian’s lack of interest in things that mattered most, that were front and center, like politics and world events,” says a person who knew both men well. “Brian has very little interest in politics. It’s not in his blood. What Brian cares about is logistics, the weather, and planes and trains and helicopters.”

“You know what interested Brian about politics?” marvels one longtime NBC correspondent, recently departed. “Brian was obsessed with whether Mitt Romney wore the Mormon underwear.” (A supporter says that this characterization is unfair and that Williams reads deeply and broadly, especially about history and politics.)

Williams took the anchor chair in December 2004, after a career handling the news at local stations and MSNBC; though he had worked as NBC’s chief White House correspondent for two years, he was never a foreign or war correspondent. He was deeply insecure about this, some of his friends believe. These people suggest that his storied broadcasts from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which proved a boon to his ratings, were in part an effort to overcome the perception that he was a journalistic lightweight. In his first years on Nightly News, several colleagues say, Williams’s weaknesses were kept in check by other strong figures at the network, from Brokaw and Russert to Capus and a Nightly News executive producer named John Reiss. With the departures of each of these men, especially Russert, who died in 2008, Williams slowly consolidated his power.

Plus Williams often appeared to be more interested in entertainment than hard news:

For a while, he was. In fact, as an excellent article by Gabriel Sherman in New York magazine recounted, Williams had long displayed an ambivalence with continuing in the anchor chair. With his abundant charisma and disarming wit, what he truly wanted, it appears, was his own talk show. According to New York, he talked to Steve Burke about succeeding Jay Leno. When Burke refused, Williams reportedly pitched Les Moonves, at CBS, to replace David Letterman, who was soon to retire. Moonves also allegedly declined. Though his appearances on shows such as 30 Rock and Jimmy Fallon successfully repositioned Williams as a good-humored Everyman—and thus expanded not only his own brand but that of Nightly News—they were not popular among many of his colleagues.

“He goes on Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon and all that, that’s where his heart was, and [at NBC] that’s seen as running away from the news division,” says a former NBC executive.

A Williams partisan disagrees. “The irony is that the very things people are criticizing Brian for now were the things they loved most about him at the time, the fact that by going on all these shows, with their young audiences, he was building bridges to the younger people who weren’t watching network news anymore,” this person says. “It was something the previous generation of anchormen, like Brokaw, hadn’t been able to do. Brian was doing it.”

After refusing Williams the Leno spot, Steve Burke offered him a consolation prize: his own magazine show, Rock Center, a bid to anchor what he hoped would be the second coming of 60 Minutes. It wasn’t. Rock Center debuted in 2011 to tepid reviews and worse ratings. Its journalistic efforts received less notice than its stunt hiring of Chelsea Clinton, whose signature contribution was the interview she did with the Geico Gecko that appeared on the show’s Web site.

After more discussion of the scandal which led to Williams being taken off the air there is speculation on his future–including what might be a perfect solution:

Williams’s future, NBC insiders insist, remains up in the air. He and Andy Lack are close friends, leading to widespread speculation that Lack will reinstate him once his suspension is complete. But people close to Lack say nothing has yet been decided. Many NBC observers simply can’t imagine a network anchorman ever returning to his former position after being exposed as Williams has. The most Machiavellian scenario, floated by an NBC partisan, is that Jeff Zucker, whose distaste for Comcast executives is well known, has fanned the flames of controversy so that he can eventually snare Williams for CNN—not as a newsman but as the long-sought replacement for Larry King. “That’s the perfect solution,” a source says. “Zucker gets a star, and Brian gets the talk show he always wanted.”

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