NBC’s News Brand Includes a Responsibility to be Truthful

Breaking: From NBC News president Deborah Turness

We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months. The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately. Link to memo here

This is an important step and I want to point out the reasons that they say they did it.

As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.

Note how he is called a “Managing Editor?” That’s the kind of title you give a journalist. He’s not the “top content creator and anchor.” This is about their view of how a journalist working for them should act.

NBC has now gone on record that a responsibility to be truthful is part of the job description for anchors. Turness has said this in print, so its got the support of powerful people behind her.

Now compare to Fox News, a company they won a case in Florida that ruled they didn’t have to legally tell the truth. Yet Fox News still gets get all the rights and privileges of a “press entity” (a technical FEC term.) It’s nice to have all the power of the press, without the responsibility.

This suspension of time and money is a symbolic sacrifice to demonstrate to people working in the news division that the people working as “press” have a different role than other content creators at Comcast.  It is also a message to ABC, CBS and CNN that they are not Fox News.
People have pointed out to me that Fox News people lie all the time, I remind them that NBC News doesn’t see itself as a liberal Fox News, they see themselves as a “centrist” news organization like ABC and CBS.  Of course they are actually a pro-war, pro-corporate news organization like the others, but they want to believe they are a straight shooting news organization.

More evidence of how NBC News sees itself from the memo

But NBC News is bigger than this moment. You work so hard and dedicate yourselves each and every day to the important work of bringing trusted, credible news to our audience.

This memo is to the employees. They know it will get out, and they want to tell the people, “We know Williams made your work a joke. That is not okay. That is not who we are. We have acted to show everyone, especially the other networks, we do care about the truth.”

(I will also note that what he lied about is significant. In an earlier piece I said that if Williams had made an anti-war lie it would have been shot down quickly.)

Finally, since we like to say, “It’s all about the money.”  What happens to the six months of cash NBC News doesn’t have to pay? Does it go to hire fact checkers? Actual journalists? Reputation and brand management specialists?

What’s next? A purge? What happens to the people who helped him spread the lie? Will they get hit too?

What about Comcast’s stock price? 

Today’s media companies are so huge that an event of this magnitude won’t have the same impact as a smaller entity. News Corp uses its size to hide the revenue losing operations when they want to (like the New York Post or the Glenn Beck Show).

Comcast, like ABC and CBS’s parent companies, expect their news divisions to turn a profit. With this announcement, Comcast is saying they approve of NBC caring about the truthfulness of the people in the news division.  This is a good thing.

At some point, like in the The Newsroom, the Comcast people will come back to NBC News and say, ‘You need to increase revenue!”

The NBC president will say, “You supported the idea that truthfulness in the news was important. You knew that our brand would be hurt with a liar at the news desk, that’s why we suspended him.  If the brand is only about the revenue, why bother firing Williams?”

It is about more than revenue, NBC have fired people before that were top rated shows, like Donahue, because they had other values (like not being seen as anti-war.)

If it was just about revenue they could hire the most entertaining liars like Fox, or replace the show with monkeys on bicycles (everyone loves those.)

I won’t just cynically blow this off. I hope it sends a shock into the entire TV news system.

This is a tiny victory for the truth. Yes, bigger lies were told to get us in the war. Lies still protect war crimes and war criminals. Instead of crying about the bigger lies, let’s use this a fulcrum point to push for more truthfulness in those areas.

Reporting from San Francisco, I’m Spocko.

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