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Boston College Expert: Suspension of Brian Williams

Matt Sienkiewicz

Matt Sienkiewicz
Communication Department

608 335 2019 (c);

Sienkiewicz is an assistant professor of communication and international studies. He teaches courses in global media cultures and media theory. His research focuses on Middle Eastern media and American foreign policy, as well as portrayals of race and religion on the American screen. In 2013, he was in Afghanistan and wrote an article for The Atlantic on a radio station struggling to survive as NATO troops leave the country. He has written articles for The International Journal of Cultural Studies, Popular Communication, The Journal of Film and Video, The Velvet Light Trap and The Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication. He is the co-editor of the book, Saturday Night Live and American Culture (Indiana University Press, 2013). Sienkiewicz is also an Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaker and screenwriter.  


“This reaction on NBC's part suggests to me something more than a single incident or transgression. It's impossible to say definitively, but the severity of the suspension points to the discovery of a pattern of missteps on Williams' part. Given the questions surrounding his Katrina coverage, I suspect that NBC's internal investigation found some things that they felt they needed to get out in front of. It's possible these never come fully to light, but I have to believe that there's more than the one misleading moment that was reported last week.

I would not go so far to say as this ends his career, although it certainly puts things in peril. Williams has very successfully developed himself into an archetypical paternal figure for millions of viewers. To learn he has lied is psychologically similar to seeing the flaws of one's parents from too close a vantage point. His mistakes become betrayals. However, Americans notoriously love to forgive public figures (see Bill Clinton's current stature) and Williams has accrued an awful lot of good will over the years. He's a talented storyteller--perhaps too talented it seems-- and he has a unique ability to balance gravity and levity. There's very likely somewhere in the media for him, provided he apologizes and his misleading statements appear to have been confined to personal experiences. 

At the moment it's hard to see him hosting the 'Nightly News' again, if only because of the intense scrutiny that would be put to every word he uttered upon return. Given the relative ease of crowd-sourced, public fact-checking today, Williams would have to be diligent bordering on paranoid just to get by. This may change with time, but he's certainly going to be in a bad position.

All that said, we don't have the full picture. As details emerge, hopefully we'll learn whether or not there has truly been a pattern of fabrication. If there has, this punishment will appear reasonable or even light. If not, we'll be forced to question if we've gotten the real, full story.”



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