The Brian Williams/NBC News Crisis Conundrum

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Groucho Marx was once denied access to an anti-Semitic country club swimming pool because he was Jewish. He famously replied, “Since my daughter is only half-Jewish, can she go in up to her knees?”

Which brings me to Brian Williams and Andrew Lack.

Williams needs no introduction, of course, but for those who may be unfamiliar with the other gentleman, he is chairman of NBC News, and the guy who held the fate of disgraced former “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams in his hands for the last six months, during which time he left the anchor twisting in the wind. After Williams admitted to lying – or as he so creatively put it, he “misremembered” – an incident involving a helicopter in Iraq in which he was flying and which he falsely claimed was shot down, Lack yanked Williams off the air for six months as he considered what to do with his once top-rated $10 million man. What indeed!

Let’s consider the role of the news anchor and the hallowed ghosts who once trod the airwaves, and how that role has evolved over the years. When legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite was once crowned in a national opinion poll “The Most Trusted Man in America,” few were surprised. After all, it was the job of the reporter, the news anchor, to report the facts, also known as the truth. If people trusted Cronkite, that was just the way it was supposed to be. Cronkite had an excellent role model in Edward R. Murrow. These were newsmen – and there were and are many others – who earned their stripes in the trenches as being straight shooters. Today, unfortunately, many TV news anchors are merely newsreaders. (That is their actual title on the BBC in the U.K.) And the relevant question becomes whether a “newsreader” should be held to a lesser standard than a Cronkite or a Murrow?

One of Williams’ big claims to fame was his talent for slow-jamming the news on the “Tonight” Show and his numerous guest shots on “30 Rock.” When Cronkite showed up once in the fictional WJM-TV newsroom on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, it was huge. When the very over-exposed Williams did it on Tina Fey’s show, it seemed like same old, same old. (I cannot, however, conjure up the image of Cronkite “slow-jamming” the news.)

Williams’ actual offense was taking an already exciting story (his chopper wasn’t hit, it was another chopper in Williams’ group that was and it managed to put down without further incident) and making it sound even more exciting. (Just watch David Letterman’s shocked reaction via YouTube when Williams appeared as a guest on his show and told the conflated tale). Williams spun this lie several other times in other public forums. Winston Churchill once quipped that the most exciting thing in the world is to be shot at with no result. Williams could have truthfully claimed that distinction without the added embellishment and it would have been a helluva tale, but he just kept running his mouth.

So at the end of six months, Lack was faced with a tough choice: Keep Williams or let him go. His neither-here-nor-there solution was to remove Williams from the NBC desk, reduce his pay, and assign him to handle just “breaking news” stories over at sister (and lesser) station MSNBC. Apparently deeming the MSNBC cable audience less worthy than NBC viewers, Lack tried and failed to come up with a Solomon-like solution; instead, he relied on the Groucho Marx approach.

And that is a huge mistake. For Lack is essentially saying that the crime that Williams committed was somehow in some parallel universe not as serious or offensive to the MSNBC audience. NBC viewers are entitled to a trustworthy newsreader, but MSNBC’s audience can settle for an admitted liar.

Or, said another way, Lack has ruled that Williams cannot go into the NBC swimming pool, but he can go in up to his knees in the MSNBC pool.

What message does this send? The wrong one, to be sure. Supposedly, Williams will toil in the less visible fields until he rehabilitates himself and learns his lesson. I assure you, he already learned his lesson. If Lack had reinstated Williams back over at NBC, his offense would not have been repeated. Williams won’t learn any more or less on cable news than on network news.

Lack, for his part, has taken the weasel way: either unable or unwilling to make a definitive decision one way or the other. One of the characteristics of a good executive is the ability and the willingness to make tough decisions, not look for ways to avoid them. If Williams was cleared to report breaking news on MSNBC why wasn’t he cleared to report news on NBC? If he is not responsible enough to read the news on the network, why is he more believable handling breaking news on cable? Where is the distinction? One thing is certain: Lack’s move is an insult to MSNBC viewers who are apparently not worthy of the same high standards as NBC viewers. That is a joke.

And somewhere Groucho Marx is raising his bushy eyebrows, flicking his cigar, and laughing his ass off.