If you’re hearing the nuns from The Sound of Music right now, I apologize. But the question remains valid. What do we do with a charming, likeable national news anchor who lied?
Many people have argued that his intent was good even if the lie was not, that it was an honest mistake even though he was suspended from NBC News for six months. Regardless, his integrity has taken a hit. And because of that hit, he should not return to national network news.
When I state this opinion, some people have suggested my take is too harsh. I generally come back with this hypothetical: Imagine a student plagiarizes a chunk of text for a paper. He intended to change it up, cast it in his own words, but forgot. He turns it in, and you catch it. Do you let him off because his intent wasn’t to plagiarize? Or do you maintain that academic dishonesty is academic dishonesty, and the penalty applies?
Remember that the networks use public airwaves — held in the public trust. While the FCC no longer operates under a public trusteeship model, it still requires that over-the-air broadcasters (like the local stations that affiliate with NBC) work in the public interest. These stations need to serve the nation and to the best of its ability — which means they need to hold themselves to a higher standard.
Let Williams go to the cable networks, which can afford to specialize. Let Williams go to the cable networks, which can balance entertainment and news. They may have a national audience, but they don’t serve a national audience.
Over-the-air broadcast stations have a higher responsibility. That responsibility means Williams doesn’t return.