Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too.
W. H. Murray
You cannot derive a moral ‘ought’ from a factual ‘is.’
There is rhetorical dissonance in calling upon two distinguished Scotsmen to set the stage for what we call “The Peacock Chronicles.” However, because these lads offer differing ways to think about what has become an unseemly and unnecessary display of inappropriate personal and corporate behavior, we are grateful for their thoughts.
Last week, some TMR readers received an abbreviated Mitchell Report on the early pages of the chronicle, some did not. Having been in the magnificent landscape of northern New Mexico, miles away from the hardware and software that make it possible for me to reach the full list, I opted for not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. For those who missed the first installment, it says that Brian Williams should have resigned and that Comcast’s CEO Brian Roberts should have facilitated this action with dispatch.
However, in the past few days, we have seen the kind of behavior to which highly revered mountain climber Murray refers – i.e., ‘hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.’
We saw it first from Williams who found himself unable to face the dire truth of his situation – his career as anchor was over.
Then came the predictable fumbling and jousting from the “C Suites” at NBCUniversal and Comcast Corporation.
It was at this point that the ‘other Brian’ – Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, and parent organization of NBCUniversal -- could have displayed resolute crisis management. It was his chance to exercise his ‘inner James Burke,’ the celebrated CEO who saved both the Tylenol brand and Johnson & Johnson with swift, decisive, and courageous action in 1982. Burke’s story has become one of Harvard Business School’s most celebrated case studies. Roberts’ will not.
Instead of being Burkean, Roberts allowed an “Alphonse and Gaston” melodrama to play itself out. And when you consider the spate of lawyers who could claim a place at the table(s), you have a recipe for making molasses while engaging in character assassination.
And that’s where we find them today.
Williams should have resigned, and Roberts should have encouraged him to do so. This should have happened promptly. It didn’t. That door is closed. As the saying has it, “You never get a second chance at a first impression,” and as a result, both Williams and NBC have permanently soiled uniforms.
Now comes the fun part to which philosopher Hume has given us an essential insight:
“You cannot derive a moral ‘ought’ from a factual ‘is.’”
Now the NBCUniversal folks are apparently off on a ‘factual is’ search to investigate Williams’ record of reporting in Iraq and Afghanistan, during Katrina, and presumably other episodes. Insider reports suggest that they are also intending to comb through his expense reports, desperately seeking a ‘factual is’ wherever one might be found.
In the interim, Williams has received a six-month, unpaid suspension, during which time accountants will plow through expense reports while others will review footage of Williams’ reporting for an indeterminate stretch. Williams will be on a legal leash that requires obtaining NBC approval of any television appearances, among other dictates, and with no guarantee of employment at the conclusion of the probationary period.
In sports terms, this would be “Heads I win, tails you lose.”
If there is logic in this punishment, it escapes this observer. No reasonable good derives from this step except a needlessly delivered coup de grâce, which benefits no one, solves no problem, addresses no substantive issue, and probably affects the bottom line in ways that could have been avoided. It also leans toward 'criminalizing' a decent fellow in the so-called interest of 'getting at the truth.'
Fortunately, this isn’t important in the realm of American public life.
It recalls a time years ago when I along with a roomful of advertising executives were busily crafting a major new business presentation to a Fortune 500 company -- a conference table strewn with empty pizza boxes and cans of Pepsi, ashtrays filling up with butts, and the clock counting down the hours. On the corkboard walls and easels spread around the room, some of Madison Avenue’s finest minds were crafting marketing strategies and product positioning statements, and in the midst of this familiar pageantry, the most senior suit in the room said, “Remember . . . if this was really important they wouldn’t let us do it.”
The Brian Williams incident could have been a simple though sad story about another high achieving public personality who flew a little too close to the sun with wings of wax, thinking that they were made of sturdier material and he of sturdier stuff.
Instead, it has become farce. Roberts could still intervene to rectify matters, but given that we have neither seen nor heard from him, we can assume that he will take cover and allow others to do the dirty work, and to do in poorly. And in the process, a good and imperfect fellow will become source material for late night talk shows and subject to additional forms of punishment that never had to surface.
Perhaps Elvis Costello anticipated these moments in his lyrics to “Black Sails in the Sunset:”
Vain boys are gonna have to swallow
Their pride this time
So let the punishment fit the crime