Today on CNN’s Reliable Sources, former CBS evening news anchor Dan Rather and veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield spoke to Brian Stelter about the ongoing Brian Williams investigation and his future as an NBC anchor.
Rather on Brian Williams’ future at NBC: “Brian has real friends or what he thought at least were real friends in the absolute upper reaches of the corporation. That stands him in good stead. When I said his chances now are slim to none, and slim may have left town, if slim is still in town, it will be because he has these friends in the very top of the corporation. They would like to keep him. I think they want to keep him. It’s in the end, can they figure out a way to do it and move on from it?”
Rather on Brian Williams’ experience off the air: “He’s been going through a version of Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell — extremely painful, extremely hurtful for him and his family. I understand, by the way, Brian, the sort of soap opera aspects of this that makes the story is so attractive and it is a big media story. But in the great scheme of things, how big is it? With the networks generally are losing power with the audience and, therefore, the power of any individual anchor has been reduced in the whole new digital world of “BuzzFeed” and “Vice”. Just how important really is this in the overall and for that matter to journalism as a whole? Fair questions.”
BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Welcome back.
Earlier this hour, we were talking about Brian Williams and the new revelations in NBC’s ongoing investigation into apparent exaggerations in his past. The new reporting this morning is that NBC is starting to get to the point where they’ll make a decision about Brian Williams’ fate, but that decision is still weeks away according to a source.
There was a big meeting in Rockefeller Center this Thursday. It was of the head of all NBC Universal, Steve Burke, the man who will ultimately decide what happens with Brian Williams, he met with the investigators that had been combing through Brian Williams’ reporting, and he heard about the findings that there are at least 10 instances of embellishments or misstatements from Brian Williams.
Joining me now to discuss this further, two veteran journalists, Dan Rather, the former “CBS Evening News” anchor, and Jeff Greenfield, also a CBS veteran, now a columnist for “The Daily Beast.”
Thank you both for being here.
DAN RATHER, FORMER CBS EVENING NEWS ANCHOR: Thanks, Brian.
STELTER: Dan, I was interested in your perspective on this because I haven’t heard you talk about the Brian Williams’ case in a couple months. In February when this all erupted out of nowhere, I know you expressed support for him. Where do you stand now on this issue of whether Brian Williams can return to the “Nightly News” chair?
RATHER: Well, first of all, Brian is a friend of mine and has been for a long while. I have not spoken to him. What I am about to say to you is not based on any conversation with him whatsoever.
Look, this is painful for all of Brian’s friends, but objectively, it’s very hard to see how NBC brings him back. I hope I’m wrong about this. I said some time ago that I thought his chances were slim to none, and you can make a case that slim just left town with these leaks to “The Washington Post” and “The New York Times,” vicious really in their own way.
RATHER: Yes. I think they were vicious. I mean, why dump this on him if he’s not able to speak for himself. I think NBC has asked him to be quiet.
RATHER: But the investigation goes on. It’s very hard to see how the corporations — corporations, they want to put things behind them, and if they make a decision to bring Brian back, that doesn’t put this problem behind them.
I have no idea how this will turn out, but I have to say the turn most recently has not been — definitely not been in Brian’s favor, and when I said vicious about the release —
RATHER: I read what they say. They say, listen, our name is not going to be on it but these are really bad things we found out about Brian Williams. I hope the investigation will be fair.
Andy Lack was brought back for NBC —
STELTER: To run the news division, yes.
RATHER: — is a friend of Brian’s, is a very experienced journalist and a fair person. I think it will be fair. We need to know what the facts are. Right now, we don’t know what all the facts are. We have had this leak for one side, sort of when Brian is down, they come from behind and give him a whack on the back of the neck.
But network television is extremely competitive and it’s not usual to have knights with the long knives, and that’s what’s happening at NBC now.
STELTER: Let me ask Jeff about this as well — because, Jeff, we have never seen a drama white like this play out in network news. You know, these claims of misstatements by Brian Williams.
I wanted to put up on screen, if I can — a tweet from a viewer who asked me this morning, we’re talking at this point about almost a dozen apparent cases of misstatements. In any other industry wouldn’t these be called lies? Aren’t journalists supposed to hold polices accountable in the same way?
So, Jeff, what would be your answer to that? Why are these being called embellishments and not lies?
JEFF GREENFIELD, VETERAN JOURNALIST: Because it’s not clear to me in some of these cases that they rise to the level of an outright lie.
A couple of months ago when this controversy first emerged, Kimberly Dozier, who almost lost her life in Iraq, actually noted that when she went back and tried to get an account of what happened, both of the soldiers that she talked to turned out to have false memories of what happened, and I think to some extent there is some slack that’s given when people were in a situation and they can’t quite remember.
GREENFIELD: The problem here is twofold.
One, the embellishments all went the same way, to put Brian Williams closer to scenes of danger than they actually were. And so, it’s not like the fish was four feet long and not one foot long.
The second thing, and the most telling problem and why I think Dan is right about the dilemma is put yourself in the shoes of NBC and Brian Williams if they did want to bring him back. What do they do? Where does Brian Williams go to say, here is what happened?
You know, Oprah is not around anymore.
GREENFIELD: Do you do a confessional on TV? Do you — I’ll be flip about this, do you claim you were embellishment addict and go get treatment in some celebrity rehab place for a month?
It’s not at all clear what the path back is, especially because Brian Williams has not only been made to be a figure of criticism, he’s also to some extent been made to be a figure of fun as we saw from the White House Correspondents’ dinner last night.
GREENFIELD: And that’s a really difficult — really difficult thing to overcome when people are laughing and not just criticizing.
STELTER: Dan, I wanted to ask you about the corporate culture issue here as well, because you mentioned that in your earlier answer and you rather famously left the “CBS Evening News” in the wake of pressure from CBS, it seemed.
I’m curious what we should know about these corporations that own these television networks and these news divisions and how they operate, how they think?
RATHER: Well, first of all, our case was completely different case —
STELTER: It was.
RATHER: That can be explained later on.
But the way it works at corporations — corporations do not like controversy. They do not want trouble. We’re talking about the very upper reaches, and anything that causes controversy makes them very nervous. That’s number one.
Number two is the emphasis is they want to — whenever there’s trouble, the first instinct and the second instinct and the third instinct, get it behind this. Let’s get this —
STELTER: And move on, right.
RATHER: Just move on. Whatever the situation is, let’s move on.
STELTER: That’s why the suspension is so complicating, right? Because it’s a six-month suspension. It’s been going almost three months and there’s speculation all over the TV business about what’s going to happen.
RATHER: Well, and a decision may be at least two or three weeks away.
STELTER: Yes, that’s what I’m wearing.
RATHER: That for everybody concerned, this is extremely painful and hurtful for everybody, for the corporation, for NBC News, for Brian, for everybody inside. And the longer it goes on, frankly, I think the greater the damage is, and the corporation will take that into account when they’re making their decision about when to do this.
At one time, I thought they’d wait until midsummer to see whether it blows over. Right now, I’m not sure they can wait that long, but sometimes these corporations, they behave in strange and mystic ways. And this may be —
RATHER: This may be one of those times.
But it will come to this. Brian has real friends or what he thought at least were real friends in the absolute upper reaches of the corporation. That stands him in good stead.
When I said his chances now are slim to none, and slim may have left town, if slim is still in town, it will be because he has these friends in the very top of the corporation. They would like to keep him. I think they want to keep him. It’s in the end, can they figure out a way to do it and move on from it?
And right now, it’s very hard to see how they can do that particularly with these latest leaks.
STELTER: Jeff, I’m reminded by the idea that so much of this is about personal relationships. So much of the things in this business are about those kind of relationships. The viewers at home aren’t aware of.
GREENFIELD: Yes. I — I’m not sure that I fully agree that it’s — that that’s a defining issue here, because I think what’s being calculated here is however much the personal relationships play out, there are very hard bottom line decisions.
You know, NBC in particular has had a very rough go of it over recent years, starting actually from the death of Tim Russert, the problem with the “Today” show, the problem with “Meet the Press”, the declining ratings, the challenge from ABC News. And in that context, when you’re talking about tens of millions of dollars, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, I think that’s basically what a company like NBC — by the way, I didn’t even mention Comcast which owns NBC has just take an huge hit in that their $45 billion —
GREENFIELD: — attempt to merge with Time Warner Cable has just been blown up.
So, you know, their — I think the corporate culture itself must feel as if it’s been undergoing this continual barrage of problems, and I’m not sure whether that will contribute much more to the resolution of the Brian Williams’ case than any personal relationships.
STELTER: Dan, in 30 seconds we have left, if we can talk to Brian Williams, what do you think he’s been going through? Do you have any sense of the personal feelings he must be going through?
RATHER: He’s been going through a version of Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell — extremely painful, extremely hurtful for him and his family.
I understand, by the way, Brian, the sort of soap opera aspects of this that makes the story is so attractive and it is a big media story. But in the great scheme of things, how big is it? With the networks generally are losing power with the audience and, therefore, the power of any individual anchor has been reduced in the whole new digital world of “BuzzFeed” and “Vice”. Just how important really is this in the overall and for that matter to journalism as a whole? Fair questions.
STELTER: You’re suggesting that digital ethics, the Internet media ethics, may be mattering just as much as this point as the ethics of a news anchor on television?
RATHER: Either that or more.
STELTER: Either that or more. To hear that from Dan Rather is something really striking.
RATHER: Well, look, it’s a new world, the digital world. Look at what’s happening today, these reports on the earthquake in Kathmandu are being filed by local journalists who are tweeting the material out of there.
STELTER: And most of the best reporting out of Baltimore last night during the violent protest — unfortunately, some looting that happened — was from people on Twitter.
RATHER: And that’s why I say that the power of network news divisions and, therefore, the power of the anchor is considerably, drastically reduced.
STELTER: Dan Rather, thanks for being here. Great talking with you.
Jeff, thank you for joining thus morning. Very much appreciate it.