I'm at something of a loss to understand the furor over Brian Williams and his serial exaggerations. But I think the concept of a moral panic helps to explain it. A moral panic occurs when gatekeepers seize upon an incident, person, or group of people to portray it or them as a serious threat to the social order. Usually, the accusation is an exaggeration, meant to enforce the power of the gatekeepers, to police important boundaries, or to distract attention from worse offenses. So, let's think about what Williams did, how NBC reacted in practical and moral terms, and why it makes sense to see this as a moral panic.
My reading of too many articles (and I could still be wrong) is this: On a reporting trip to Iraq, Williams flew in a helicopter convoy. It may or may not have come under small arms fire. A convoy ahead of them did come under small arms and rocket propelled grenade fire. Williams may or may not have heard that over a headset and, given the seating arrangements and the bad view, could have thought it was his convoy. Nonetheless, he clearly knew, at minimum, that he had not come under RPG fire. Initially, he told the story with some accuracy at the various speeches he gave but over the years it gradually evolved into a narrative that put him at the center of the action--the brave newsman, in khakis (of course) risking his life in the company of American heroes. Similarly, he may have exaggerated the conditions he saw in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, although this has not drawn quite as much press.
I'd argue this was a minor sin, at worst. Williams exaggerated in order to make himself look better, more dangerous, a real newsman out in the field. Since no anchor ever really does that ever in their lives any more, they perform instead a simulacrum of fieldwork as anchors. They don the right clothes--that's very important to this performance--and head out onto the beach in a hurricane, Times Square in a blizzard, a helicopter in a war, a ship out on the Gulf in a well leak. They are always surrounded, coached, produced, coddled and safe and deep down, I suspect they hate that. So, they tell some tall tales, much like the ones I tell of my speech team experiences. I suspect the lunch meat really wasn't (always) moldy, the hotels (except for Tomah and Baltimore) weren't quite that bad, nor was the coach completely insane. This was a version of the "walked to school in a blizzard ten miles uphill both ways when I was a kid" lie and "why do YOU get a snow day?"
Think about what he did NOT do. He did not commit a major personal transgression--he did not commit adultery, serial rapes facilitated by drugs, a DUI, crash a car that kills someone, etc.. He did not plagiarize a news story, lie about a source, commit a Judith Miller, pay for a story, pay a source--in fact, there's no evidence he ever got a story wrong. As a matter of fact, he and Anderson Cooper probably did the most to stoke outrage about Katrina and create a correct consensus that Bush screwed up and people needed help.
Should NBC have suspended a #1 anchor and a rare bright spot at a besieged network? Because, honestly, it's Lorne Michaels, Jimmy Fallon, and Brian Williams. That's about it at NBC. Now, you can cut Williams. Should they have done it? No.
Practically speaking, we know the playbook for these transgressions and many considerably worse. The gatekeepers rage. You lower your head, bite your lower lip, and say (Southern accents? Use 'em if you got 'em), "I deeply regret the damage I've done to my friends and family. All I can do now is to work harder for them and for the American people every day. Every. Single. Day." When the gatekeepers rage again, and say you have no credibility, you just keep saying that and doing your job. Because most people simply don't care about this stuff. And Bill Clinton knew that. Show regret. Move on. Ignore the pontificators. That's the playbook.
In a larger moral context, let's think about NBC. Since Tom Brokaw created the Greatest Generation, it has been the most consistent and powerful advocate of the military in the media landscape. It has made veterans stories its own; it pulls Brokaw out of mothballs at every opportunity; it constantly passes along inside info from the Pentagon; its reporters and anchors wore flag lapel pins in during the Iraq War; John McCain is basically a co-host of Meet the Press. It never, not once, reflected upon its coverage of the leadup to the Iraq war nor its gullibility in its acceptance of Bush Administration lies. Unlike the NYT and other outlets, for instance, it never investigated its reporting. The contrast to the present situation is stark. In search of ratings, it put David Gregory in charge of Meet the Press. This is not an institution known for its ethics. Brian Williams has been the least of their troubles over the past twenty years.
And that's why they fell into moral panic. I think the concept explains two aspects of this. When your credibility, like NBC's, truly should have gone away due to your sins (the Iraq War), I think you find yourself deeply sensitive to smaller infractions. In the classic, stereotypical example, if the guy replaces the toilet paper roll every single time it needs it, he's likely committed adultery.
Second, and more important, the media landscape has flattened. People like me can pontificate. The only thing that protects the big money in national news is the appearance of gravitas. Let's face it, all kinds of geeky folks on the interwebs and elsewhere are way smarter than the mainstream media and likely able to outthink and outreport them. The only thing the big boys have going for them is an exaggerated sense of self, a cultural sense of weight, of matter, of tradition, of being the place to go, so that old folks like me will keep watching the evening news. Absent that, if they have to compete on even terms, if Andrea Mitchell really has to match her "wits" against Thomas Ricks or Jonathan Chait, it's over. It's not about substance; it's about the appearance of substance, the illusion of weight. That's why the appearance of impropriety--a tall tale--is so much worse than an actual impropriety--swallowing lies that make a war. Because appearance is all they have left. And appearance earns them millions and millions of dollars.
The British have the perfect term. A television presenter. Brian Williams is an excellent presenter. He does that job very well and people like him in that role. He should be allowed to keep it.