Why America is talking about NBC news anchor Brian Williams

The US news star has been suspended without pay following his false claims about Iraq war coverage

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American network NBC has suspended Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of its flagship current affairs show NBC Nightly News, and a celebrity in his own right. So what’s the story?

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Williams found himself at the centre of controversy on January 30th when the show broadcast a segment reuniting him with a solider he had worked with while reporting on the Iraq War in 2003.

To introduce the piece, Williams credited the soldier with having protected him and his crew after their Chinook helicopter was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and forced to land. Williams and the network have repeated this account many times in the past, most notably last year when he stopped by the Late Show with David Letterman.

The trouble is, Williams wasn’t actually in the helicopter that was hit, as first-hand witnesses were quick to point out.

Williams apologised on his show on 4th February before taking himself off the air. On 11th February, NBC suspended the anchor, saying the transgressions were “wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.” William’s suspension comes just two months after he signed a five-year deal that is reportedly worth $10 million a year. An internal review is now being conducted by NBC into other stories reported by Williams, including his award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

The public reaction appears to tend towards anger with Williams, tinged with some sympathy. The anchor has been a constant staple of American political reporting since 1993 when he began his career at NBC. He gained viewers’ trust as the channel’s chief White House correspondent and, as the star of The News With Brian Williams and then NBC Nightly News from 2004, became the go-to guy for disaster and war coverage.

As managing editor of NBC Nightly News, Williams had made editorial decisions at the newscast and gave approval on content (think Will McAvory in The Newsroom without all the terror).

That trust and respect slowly transformed into unprecedented celebrity as Williams found himself on the other side of interviews, and the focus of spots on entertainment programmes like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live.

Commenters like The Daily’s Show’s Jon Stewart have pointed out the unique position Williams occupied and the difficult balancing act that comes with it – remaining unbiased and ethical while still bringing in ratings and pushing a consistent brand.

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David Westin, former president of competitors ABC News, summed it up nicely, telling The Huffington Post “a lot of the television news organisations are making the reporters and the anchors The Story, and I think that’s a dangerous place to be.”