Update (Feb. 10, 7:58 pm): NBC has announced that Brian Williams will be suspended for six months. Lester Holt will continue in his stead for that time.
The Brian Williams fiasco has reminded us of two things. One is that the news media loves to cover the news media (yours truly included), and the other is that the network evening news, despite having been dismissed as a dinosaur for at least 40 years, is still pretty popular and important. Brian Williams’s implosion will not affect the future of journalism much, but it will affect NBC’s bottom line, and his replacement will have a position of some influence in the sense of helping to drive the so-called conventional wisdom.
The news anchor job is a bit absurd in some ways. Someone works for years in journalism, and his ultimate reward is not to have to do actual journalism any more, but simply sit there and read stuff other people have written. And yet he must pretend that he’s doing more than that; everything he says has to sound like he personally said it, and he must report live from the scene of big events as if he personally were going out and finding the news. Williams seemingly got a little too caught up in the play-acting part of his job – where he acts like he’s a rugged, intrepid tough-guy journalist like Lois Lane or Brenda Starr – and wound up sacrificing the thing that is the news anchor’s main source of value: the fact that people are willing to believe what he says. Because it’s kind of a fake job, the exaggerated stories hurt Williams more than they would someone else; he doesn’t have a bunch of accurate or important journalism to fall back on. All he has is his honest face and the ability to make people trust him. Without that, he’s doomed.
Still, it’s not enough for a replacement simply to benefit from the fact that he (most likely he) doesn’t have a track record of making stuff up. According to the New York Post‘s gossip outlet Page Six, Williams had “the highest Q scores of all his evening news competitors,” meaning he was considered the most likeable, partly thanks to the wry sense of humour and ad-libbing ability he displayed on talk shows. Anyone who slides into the job now will be trying to take over for a well-loved host whose viewers, even if they don’t trust him any more, really did find him pleasant to be with. So the new host may face some instant dislike and distrust simply based on not being Brian Williams, and daring not to be Brian Williams in front of millions of Williams fans.
Page Six claims the top three candidates are Williams’s current replacement, Lester Holt; Willie Geist, a recent addition to the Today show; and Carl Quintanilla, who hosts a show for NBC’s financial network, CNBC. All three are men but not all of them are white men, so NBC probably assumes it’s casting a very wide net here. Quintanilla is relatively young for a CNBC host, and seems to be portrayed as kind of the “cool” person by that network’s standards, which means occasionally showing him on the street using a cellphone. Willie Geist is a guy with no discernible personality, whose job appeared to consist of not being a big threat to Matt Lauer (who, the Post says, isn’t up for Williams’s job because NBC probably considers him too old). Holt is older than the other two, and doesn’t try to appear younger or cooler than he is; one Today show segment actually had Geist introduce a team-up between Holt and his grown-up newscaster son. That may rule him out if NBC is really on a youth kick.
Holt, who has been at NBC for a long time but rarely gets the big jobs, may not have what NBC considers the necessary “charisma” or “gravitas” or whatever you want to call it; Carole Simpson, a former NBC weekend anchor, told The Root that “Lester is the MAN” but that she expects him to be passed over in favour of “some 40ish, attractive white male” — like Geist. If Geist is the one who gets the job, expect a lot of soul-searching articles about the dominance of white men in this particular role, and, well, that will continue to be true even if Holt does get it.
One thing is for sure: whoever gets to replace Williams will not have to think much about how to change the evening news model or how to appeal to a new audience. This isn’t a format that needs “saving” or “updating” even to the limited extent that late-night talk shows do. Many people don’t personally know anyone who watches the evening news – but that just proves it’s a big world out there and that people with similar tastes tend to flock together. The evening network news may be an old form, and the news anchor largely a symbolic role, but as Williams’s success and failure both prove, the symbolism continues to be of interest to quite a few people.