Brian Williams has not led. What’s an anchor for?

Why wasn't Williams the one interviewing the military veterans who could help him correct his faulty account? That’s what a leader of a news division would do— I mean, if he is really a leader.

6 Feb 2015 2:13 pm 79 Comments

Part One: Feb. 6, 2015

I figured out what’s bothering me about the story that has engulfed NBC News, “after the public symbol of the network, anchor Brian Williams, faced a torrent of derision and criticism for telling a story about his wartime reporting that has proved to be untrue.” (Washington Post.) I don’t know that he deliberately lied to puff himself up and receive “stolen valor.” Nor do I know that ordinary “could happen to anyone” memory failure accounts for it. Both interpretations are popular online. I’m not persuaded of either one, but I can’t disprove them.

I do know this: since it became clear that Williams had created big problems for himself and his network by telling a false story, he has not led. Brian_Williams_by_David_ShankboneAnd that is the job of an anchorman, if the anchorman really is what he is supposed to be— not just a news reader, celebrity and Jon Stewart guest but a kind of super-journalist, able to host the nightly news (a job in itself), act as managing editor of the broadcast (a job in itself), report stories from the field, preside over special events like election night and serve as the embodiment of the news division’s mystical compact with the viewing public, the person in whom trust is lodged and then expressed to the rest of the reporting and producing corps. That’s the job: face of the brand, human figure in a whole architecture of trust. Williams reveled in it, and spoke many times of what an awesome responsibility it was for a kid from Jersey.

And then he created an anchorman crisis. “The trustworthiness of one of America’s best-known and most revered TV journalists has been damaged, [and] the moral authority of the nightly network news anchor, already diminished in the modern media era, has been dealt another blow.” (New York York Times. Video recap here.)

Since the news broke on February 4 that Williams had been forced to admit that parts of his story were untrue, other journalists have been tracking down participants — people who were there — to ask what they recall of those events. Stars and Stripes, CNN, the New York Times, Page Six have all been involved in re-reporting the story.

But where is NBC News? For that matter: why isn’t Brian Williams the one interviewing the military veterans who can help him correct his faulty account? Why isn’t he putting his prestige and instant name recognition to work in getting to the bottom of what actually happened? Sure, it might be humbling. And there might be credibility problems since he would be investigating himself, in a way. But going right at those problems — and emerging on the other side with something that the audience, his colleagues and other journalists can trust — is exactly what’s called for in this situation.

I mean, that’s what a leader of a news division would do— if he’s really a leader, and not a figurehead, air head, talking head or swollen head. A leader of a network news division that is still dependent, for better or worse, on the archaic anchorman system would recognize that the architecture of trust that places the lead anchor in both the glamour and the “stress” positions — head of state and prime minister, as it were — can crumble instantly if the anchorman himself cannot be trusted in telling the story of his own experience. That affects not only Williams but everyone who works for NBC News.

Think about it: The Face of the Brand lets other news organizations re-report his faulty stories? Journalistically speaking, how does that work? It doesn’t. Too late now, though. The apology Williams gave has been called into grave question. Other newsrooms have led the charge on the story. NBC has an internal investigation underway to figure out how bad the situation is. And Politico is reporting: “Brian Williams is in serious trouble.”

The trouble has been caused not only by his fictionalizing of a helicopter ride 12 years ago, but by a failure actually to be what the anchorman position calls for. Not a great talk show guest, but a great leader.

Part Two: February 7, 2015.

Last night I went back and re-watched the clips where Brian Williams tells his story. I also re-read a lot of the coverage. It’s good that NBC is investigating because some things are pretty disturbing when you start thinking them through.

One has been mentioned in the comments here and by Erik Wemple of the Washington Post. Brian Williams didn’t fly in that helicopter by himself. He had an NBC crew with him. The chances that crew members would misremember the flight the same way Williams did seem pretty slim. They’re journalists too. But we haven’t heard from them. Why? Wemple:

A production crew accompanied Williams on the helicopter outing. The Erik Wemple Blog has asked NBC News who and how many people were on that crew. But where have they been as Williams has gone about misremembering the episode in media appearances in recent years? Upon the 10th anniversary of the incident, the anchor visited David Letterman and couldn’t have been more unequivocal about having ridden in the ‘copter under attack: “Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47,” Williams told the “Late Show” host.

Also in March 2013, Williams told Alec Baldwin in an interview on WNYC’s “Here’s The Thing.” Speaking of his tendency to say “I’ve got this” in sticky situations, he said, “And I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe,” Williams said.

Again: Where were Williams’s crew members, who surely knew that Williams had either “conflated” his Chinook with another Chinook — his explanation — or was using the passage of time to embellish his own exploits — another explanation. And what of other NBC News employees who worked on the story? Why did they remain silent on these matters? Are they still with NBC News?

That’s a big deal. Potentially, you have people in NBC News silencing themselves while Bigfoot tells tall tales. Or worse: they make their discomfort known and no one does anything because Bigfoot is too big to be challenged. Even worse: Williams is at some point warned to cut the crap and he doesn’t. That’s a corporate crisis. (See this post from Hot Air about the 2003 report.)

But there’s something else. When you watch these clips there’s a troubling ambiguity to them now. One frame around them is: Williams pays tribute to the troops who fought the war and protected him in the desert. He does a lot to make that message explicit, and this part of the performance requires expressions of humility. I’m no solider, I’m no war correspondent, I had no business being there, I’m so grateful for these brave men and women.

When you watch it now, though, you may wonder: Why does this story keep coming up? How is it getting in front of audiences repeatedly over the years?

Let’s take the Lettermen appearance in 2013. Did the show’s producers say, “Hey, it’s the tenth anniversary of Brian almost getting shot out of the sky in the helicopter, let’s have him on…”? Seems unlikely. Letterman says in the clip he either forgot or never knew about the episode. More likely: Williams wanted to talk about it, so they programmed it in. That’s not so modest.

Why is Madison Square Garden halting a hockey game and directing the attention of fans to Brian Williams and his military buddy being “reunited?” Because they knew about this story and thought it would be nice to revisit it 12 years later? Or because NBC promotion people alerted them and asked for the story to be re-told over the PA system?

You see, it’s not just that Williams misremembered or embellished the story, or, as some believe, deliberately lied. He seems to have looked for opportunities to re-tell it, and involved NBC personnel in that quest, along with other institutions: The Late Show on CBS, Madison Square Garden.

To the people who were enlisted in them, these maneuvers didn’t seem self-glorifying because of the presence of the soldiers in the “Brian Williams gets shot at” story— the real heroes, as he is careful to say. But when you learn that he wasn’t shot at, that his pilot says he was in a different helicopter formation that took no fire, the minimizing tactics don’t sound modest anymore. They sound like tricks. Consider this part of the transcript from Alec Baldwin’s radio show:

And I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe…

The words say: Williams had no business being there. He was doing something stupid. Behaving recklessly, perhaps. Those silly civilians with their clueless antics in a war zone! But Williams cannot mean that. In reality, he was accompanying U.S. Army General Wayne A. Downing as a big shot correspondent, hardly a prank or stunt. Williams and Baldwin are clowning. The words don’t mean what they say. They are there to deliver the payload: with rounds coming into the airframe…

Whatever that is, it’s not misremembering. It’s more active than that. So is getting David Letterman to ask him about an episode from ten years ago. And getting Madison Square garden to honor one of the soldiers who protected him in the desert, which created footage that could be packaged into a story for NBC Nightly News, where Williams is managing editor.

You can see why the soldiers who were there got fed up with this and took to Facebook. It’s more than misremembering or embellishing. It’s looking for opportunities to tell the story and, in the telling of it, switching the focus to the military while an accidental payload — Brian Williams under fire in Iraq — is dropped. “You’re a true journalistic war hero, and I’m just a dumb ass,” Letterman says as they clown about it before one of the commercial breaks. Earlier in the show, Williams had protested when Letterman expressed admiration for his courage under fire, re-directing attention to the brave volunteers in the U.S. army. By the second time, he says nothing. He just accepts hero status. In good fun.

If people from NBC were enlisted in the mounting of these fictions, if they had doubts but swallowed them, if they protested but were not heard — all questions for the investigation — then Brian Williams may not be the only one in peril. Watch:

See my new post on this: The “conflation” that Brian Williams confessed to began in 2003.

Photo credit: David Shankbone.


Let me suggest a second way in which Williams has not behaved like an anchorman.

Listening to the iteration of his accounts of what actually happened in March 2003 in the Iraqi desert (using “shot at” rather than “shot,” using “we” to refer to a convoy of helicopters or the one in which he was riding, and so on) requires an exquisite, even Clintonian parsing of his use of words.

This is the type of lawyered-up formulation one would expect of a defense witness at a medical malpractice deposition. The job of a journalist, especially an anchorman, is to describe things clearly, accurately and vividly — not to fudge, obfuscate, to tiptoe up to the line of falsehood, only to hide behind a veneer of ambiguity.

That is why Williams’ problem is not so much that he has been caught in a lie — but that he seems to be exposed as a self-serving, mealy-mouthed fudger.

Abadman says:

At Professor Rosen’s recommendation I read your post on the matter and the Fallow’s Atlantic article you linked to. I don’t really agree with the conclusions about the military at the service member level, but interesting.

As a practical matter how many Journalists or news organizations give an apology as you have described? We live in the era of the lawyered apology.

Or for that matter how many news organizations investigate their screw ups? Rolling Stone sure didn’t with the UVA story.

I’m sure there are a few instances but as a rule I am not so sure either practice is commonplace enough to imply some sort of Journalistic standard. (Although I’ll allow one finds what one looks for or doesn’t look for.)

Finding a national news celebrity untrustworthy and self-absorbed is like being “shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!” The same holds true for a lot of Flag Officers in the military.

Finally, this episode reminds me of an old joke. What is the difference between a war story and a fairy tale? A fairy tale begins “Once upon a time”

Keith Michael says:

I agree. Can’t wait for everybody to get over all this self-righteousness.

You sure did type a lot of words about something you claim is unimportant.

Abadman says:

I assume you are talking to me, if not my apologies. As I alluded to in my post I think you are seeing what you are looking for, but maybe not what is there. I am not sure where I ever claimed this is unimportant.

I fear I am viewed as somewhat of a Troll here, having several posts deleted, and I was trying to approach my point obliquely, too obliquely it seems.

I was trying to make that point that sincere apologies along with diligent and transparent investigations of screw ups are as rare as hen’s teeth in journalism. Talking like he should do either of these things imply standards and mores not readily evident in journalism and act more of an apology for journalism’s culture than a criticism of Williams.

National news anchors and military flag officers in the end hold political positions and wind up, for better or worse, behaving as politicians. I remain wary of all of them, and little they do surprises, or disappoints me as I expect so little of them.

So is this important? Yeah I think it is. But Brian Williams is a symptom and not the disease.

The joke at the end was not meant to minimize what Williams did. It is poor form even by war story standards. It was meant to acknowledge Williams the person, who is probably a decent shit, (hate the sin not the sinner). It is also a joke I love to share and is a standard warning before I launch into war stories of my own.

A lot of words to say you are wrong.

Former TVNewser says:

If this isn’t a fireable offense at NBC, it begs the question: just what is?

When ratings become intolerable? Just look at David Gregory. Wonder if Chuck Todd has done any better.

Mike Shenker says:

Credibility problems if he covers the story? You bet. How can he report on a story in which he’s the principal subject?

Here’s what I am trying to say in this post, Mike.

Yes: How can he report on a story in which he’s the principal subject? Ordinarily, we would say he can’t. But the anchor job is not an ordinary job. That’s why I wrote: ‘The Face of the Brand lets other news organizations re-report his faulty stories? Journalistically speaking, how does that work? It doesn’t.’ So while you ask: how can he be the one? I ask: how can he not?

A super-journalist has to try, or give up the title and all pretension.

Betty Medsger says:

Not only should he not report a story about himself. If he can’t trust his memory, as he says, then someone else at NBC definitely needs to be going at this in depth.

It worked for Dan Rather.

Very good point, Jay.

NBC News has the best access to the source on this story, they should have the best coverage.

Same problem with CBS and the Dan Rather meltdown. It was a great time to find out the truth, but they let the Powerline bloggers define the story. CBS was paralyzed. Why?

CurtisNE says:

“NBC News has the best access to the source on this story…”


There were other NBC employees on that helicopter with Brian Williams — he doesn’t work alone. Obviously there was an NBC cameraman, and probably several others including a field producer. Some are likely still with NBC and others readily contactable.

No real need to track down the military folks involved.

Not hard to guess why those NBC underlings kept quiet all these years — disputing BigFoot Brian Williams is not good for job security.

Surely what paralyzed CBS and Rather was their knowledge that the story (of Bush’s draft dodging) was true, though hard and maybe impossible to prove by the rules, and that by dumping the bad documents they would be suggesting it wasn’t.

Yes, they were paralyzed by the truth. That’s why they had to lie.

That’s the underlying problem with the liberal creed: “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the message” The end justifies the means. Gruberize the story.

Byron Reimus says:

Best take on Brian Williams affair that I have read anywhere in the last few days–and the leadership MIA message here should resonate far beyond anchors and media. Bravo, Jay!

Chris Bugbee says:

Or maybe he is nothing more than what some have long suspected: a media figurehead whose GQ/Esquire suavity and debonair aspect are his only stock in trade. Telling that his responses to date have not been those of a journalist redoubling his efforts at establishing the truth, but those of an ertertainment property trying to minimize / contain the damage to himself and his value. With his every response to date, he has made the story about himself than about his reporting, recapitulating the same lens distortion increasingly visible as his telling of the original account became increasingly embroidered.

Tina Brown is Tina Brown:

Former editor in chief of MSNBC:

Dumb question: is there any data on people actually trusting anchors anymore? Is there really any trust being squandered?

Hey Tina, what about the myth that managing editors are jounralists? I’d say that’s the title he ought to keep.

According to Gallop, it’s been about 10 years since a majority of Americans expressed a Great Deal/Fair Amount of trust in the media and that number now sits at 40%. So I don’t think Americans are much shocked by NBC’s lack of trust as they are gobsmacked by how tall Williams had made his tale.

Merrill Brown says:

Reviewing this matter will take time, especially a review of his larger record beyond this incident. Richard Esposito should continue his look at the initial matter and submit his work to an independent review panel taking a larger look at Williams’ history. Williams can’t report the news without viewers at least smirking. His suspension or leave is critical. His presence on the air undermines the work of everyone producing news coverage at NBC/MSNBC. He should meet reporters, perhaps just a limited group to avoid a circus.

Michael says:

Fox News has made this kind of news behavior normal. They pretty much lie, obfuscate, spin, twist and torture the news till it fits their particular point of view. Brian Williams ego got the best of him and he should be humbled, but he hasn’t even come close to the mean spirited, cynical and dangerously solipsistic unnews of Fox.

So now it’s Fox News fault Brian Williams mistold the truth. Hmm

You’re both being absurd.

Remember when Bill O’Reilly claimed to have been shot down in Iraq?

Remember when Hillary Clinton lied about flying into Bosina under sniper fire

“I remember landing under sniper fire,” she said in Washington on Monday. “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

News footage of the event however showed her claims to have been wide of the mark, and reporters who accompanied her stated that there was no sniper fire. Her account was ridiculed by ABC News as “like a scene from Saving Private Ryan”.

What exactly is a “super-journalist”?

I didn’t explain it in the post? I thought I did.

A super-journalist able is one is able to host the nightly news (a job in itself), act as managing editor of the broadcast (a job in itself), report stories from the field, preside over special events like election night, serve as the embodiment of the news division’s mystical compact with the viewing public — the person in whom trust is lodged and then expressed to the rest of the reporting and producing corps — and also be a likable celebrity, a face of the brand and a talk show guest so charming and funny that some people even think he could have a second career in comedy.

Clear enough?

Cheers Brianfor the excellent hint, perhaps non-developers just like me can pull that away: )This is really important for the multi-international site in relation to SEO.

Dave Williams says:

Oh, but Lyin’ Brian is one of the Good People, you know, the Liberal Intelligentsia, so even if what he says may be factually inaccurate, he’s fighting the GOOD fight. *sarc button off*
Another sleazy, lying, liberal scumbag (but I repeat myself) who will get away with it. Move along, nothing to see here.

John Cavnar-Johnson says:

Has Richard Engel made any comment? Because Richard Engel is the template for the reporter Brian Williams is pretending to be. Engel actually get shot at, kidnapped, etc. in his pursuit of the news.

When did Engel get kidnapped?

John Diamond says:

On Friday’s broadcast, Williams’ last, for now, Engel filed from wartorn Iraq — bullets and bombs in the background. Amazing that M.E. Williams put it on the air with a straight face. ‘Here’s an actual NBC reporter getting shot at with REAL bullets!’ Still, Engel’s antics are tedious — constantly acting in a way that says the story is not about what’s happening but about HIM being in danger. It’s a big trend in TV news, and it’s lame. Great point by Jay about how Williams’ faux homage to the real heros is just an airframe (their’s that word again!) for his own thinly disguised boasting.

John Cavnar-Johnson says:

I don’t have the same impression of Engel. Maybe because I don’t ever see him on NBC Nightly News. I see him doing in-depth reports on MSNBC and some other shows where he has time to do analysis. In those environments, he seems to me to achieve exactly what I expect from a journalist. He goes somewhere I can’t, tells me what is happening, and tells me why it matters. The first two parts should be easy (but aren’t). The third part requires that you have “been there, done that, and learned the lingo”. Engel has been in the Middle East for a long time, covered most of the major events there live and in-depth, and he speaks Egyptian Arabic. All in all, pretty much exactly what I want in a reporter.

My experience of Engel matches yours, John Cavnar-Johnson.

SkillSets says:

The producer with Williams was probably an NBC staff employee, under contract. The camera crews may or may not have been US-based; if they were US-based they’ll have a union backing them. If the crew were offshore casual/daily hires, c’est la guerre.


With Brian Williams on that 2003 helicopter mission were NBC News Producer Justin Balding, NBC News Military Analyst General Wayne Downing (retired 4-Star; deceased in 2007), and an unidentified NBC camera ‘crew’.

Justin Balding still works at NBC News and received multiple Emmy Nominations for his NBC news productions. He declined any public comment on the current Brian Williams situation.

General Downey was responsible for getting Brian Williams and the NBC crew unusual special permission for that Iraq helicopter flight.

Michael Cosgrove says:

I’ve never been impressed by reporters who have to tell us just how brave they are to do their job.
I remember once watch a chap describing the mayhem around him while the cameraman was wiping blood off the lens.
That’s impressive.

Bobbisox says:

The David Letterman segment is pretty amazing. BWilliams is speaking with such confidence, detail and focus. It’s a stunning bit of storytelling on so many levels. I found a quote from the author Daniel Wallace who wrote the book “Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions” that pretty much sums of Brian Williams for me: “A storyteller makes up things to help other people; a liar makes up things to help himself.”

You do have me wondering whether it would ever be possible to remove news authority from the anchor’s desk. Reset expectations that the person reading the news has anything to do with words being chosen. There’s honor in that: if a performer is all that’s needed it’s fine to select a performer. Many reporters — good at the work of writing &’investigation– don’t sound or look great reading off a telepromter. I don’t see it happening; what network would want to admit the person reading the news is a performer, not a journalist. The fact that Williams could look comfortable hosting Saturday Night Live always bothered me. I do not look down on the fact actors & comedians host SNL, but when i saw Williams do it it mad me think the performance of a “journalist” was more art than sweat. It does make one wonder if Stewart’s & Williams abilities are much different.

He’s a news reader, not a journalist. Why are we spending so much time on this?

Jay, you are not using the right terminology here. What Brian was doing on Letterman, and elsewhere, was a precise and calculated use of the “humblebrag.”

that word contains multitudes: it says “oh my gosh, am i really so brave as to crazily go into dangerous areas like a war correspondent? it’s almost like i’m still a regular guy despite my massive contract”

of course, the format of most interview shows allows for this type of behavior, because many of the hosts are either liberal and have to show extra military worship, thus NEVER questioning heroism trope, or they are conservatives and are naturally inclined to believe such a thing.

there is a sickness underlying all of this, which is the worship of the military in a democratic society. it’s like my lai, abu ghraib etc. never happened, wikileaks never leaked anything. it’s really sad, but williams was tapping into it.

crosspatch says:

Why does this surprise anyone? This is the same news organization that edited a 911 call by George Zimmerman to make him appear to be a racist.

Did someone say they were surprised?

I am not sure how one squares the super-journalist mythos and lack of surprise.

Barry Rosen says:

For those of us who grew up in the era of Cronkite, Severeid and Brinkley, the idea that the senior major network anchor is not trustworthy is a very big deal. I can’t imagine there’s any way back for Williams now, and I agree that anyone who silently stood by watching him embellish will also be gone. Williams’s “Big Dog” status will not protect him or those who silently watched.

I wonder how TV news demographics play in the reaction? I think you have an important insight and it would be interesting to see a survey of NBC/Williams “trust” impact broken down by age demographics and comparison to NBC News ratings demographic.

To answer Jay’s question about why BW isn’t leading in this story, it’s because it’s not a story! It’s certainly not worth all this effort and ridiculous conspiracy theory. The man simply took advantage of his position to publically thank a group of soldiers in his past and screwed up some the facts in his recall. When pressed (pun intended), he apologized properly for his error. END OF STORY!!!

There’s nothing to lead on, nothing to cause trouble for anyone. No one should be offended and to my knowledge, no one actually is offended. The only thing being raked here is a pile of rotten muck!!!

In the words of the great Obi Wan, “these are not the droids your looking for!” Y’all go find a real story to discuss, there are plenty!!!

“… ridiculous conspiracy theory.”

I missed that. What is the conspiracy theory being presented here? What does it propose? Can it be summarized? Can you point me to the passages where the theory is put forward? I am eager to see it.

Also, re: the conspiracy— who’s in it?

Jay (yeah this is kinda weird!), What I meant by conspiracy theories are how this story seems to be that Williams had some deep dark intent to mislead the public and puff himself at the expense of others. Why does he need to correct the record or investigate the incident? His purpose is was to honor the soldiers who protected him, not re-tell the story.

Which one of us hasn’t told an old story, including various short-cuts in the narrative, over and over so many times that in our own mind, the story changes a bit? I tell my real estate students all the time that my stories are 70% true, meaning that some of the facts and personalities may have been altered to better and more quickly get to the point of the story.

The point BW was making was that he spent time in Iraq with soldiers who protected him when he was scared. He was honoring these soldiers, not telling their or even his story. That he screwed up some facts should not be such a big issue here. Had he been doing a “news” account of the trip, of course his accuracy is paramount. Here, not so much.

My point is that everyone needs to chill and get off his back. It is clear to me that it was an honest mistake, for which he appropriately apologized, complete with egg on his face!

Okay, I understand. Thank you. You actually didn’t mean to say “conspiracy theory.” You meant: why are you giving Brian such a hard tine about this?

And if, when this story was heard at Madison Square Garden and then on NBC Nightly News the next night, it was accompanied with a warning that it was about 70 percent true, I would have no problem with it. I would feel exactly as you do. “So the guy tells stories that are about 70 percent true. For this you want to crucify him?”

But imagine what would happen in the control room in Rockefeller Center as the graphics person loads the words “warning: about 70 percent true” to flash on the screen when Brian Williams introduces the story on NBC Nightly News.

Seriously. Picture that scene. If you can picture that, then you may see the point of my post.

Does NBC’s reaction surprise anyone? This is the media giant which allows Al Sharpton to mingle “journalism” with advocacy on MSNBC (and who is in serious legal trouble with the feds on unrelated tax evasion). NBC is no better than Fox.

It’s funny how many Rosen’s jumped in this conversation! For the record, not that it matters at all, to the best of my knowledge, I’m not related to any of them.

I understand what you are saying and generally agree with you. That being said I think there is a desire by some to not just reveal his actions but pick apart every statement every falsity every interview in a way that is akin to watching the execution of a person, and wanting to stick around to see the body stripped and thrown in the grave. Maybe he shouldn’t be a lead anchor of a nightly network news show but he’s a human being. He’s got a family, he’s smart and talented. Do we really need to shame him into oblivion? Ask yourself how you would hope to be treated if you made a similar misstep–if you told a lie, perhaps to boost your image a bit, or to make yourself feel a little better about yourself. As imperfect people, and all of us are, can we show a bit of empathy too?

As imperfect people, and all of us are, can we show a bit of empathy too?

It’s a good question. Certainly something I think about when undertaking the job of critic. Here’s how I answer it for myself.

First, I only criticize the public person, not the private man. I stick to what he said publicly, what he did in his capacity as a journalist, or in representing NBC News. That’s my way of being fair, of recognizing that there’s a human being there.

Second, I am harder, as a critic, on someone like Williams than I would be on, say, his cameraman or junior producer. To me this is also fair. He is paid millions of dollars a year. He puts himself in the public eye a lot, not just in anchoring the news every night but in constant appearances in other media. He is not just the anchor and host of NBC Nightly News but its managing editor, a position of additional responsibility. Each one of these facts justifies in my mind additional scrutiny.

Third: I try not to go where I cannot go. I don’t know if Williams deliberately lied, and so I do not make that claim. I don’t know what is in his heart. Nor have I said he should be fired, because I don’t have enough information.

Fourth: I try to provide ways for readers to check up on what I say by reading the words for themselves, looking at the clips, comparing what I said he did to what they can see with their own eyes. This is my way of recognizing that people can interpret things differently, and human life is complex.

So these are some of the ways I try to acknowledge that there is a human being there, not just a talking head or miscreant, but without going easier on Williams the public person because he has a wife and kids, or seems like a nice guy to have a beer with. That I don’t do.

That is an awesome reply, Jay. Thank you for taking the time to pull back the curtain and provide that explanation.

I wanted to ask if one other consideration comes into play, or even if it should or should not: Should we hold Brian Williams and NBC News to the same or higher standard they hold other public figures to?

If Brian Williams or NBC News has the reputation of trying people in the court of public opinion, destroying reputations and implying guilt in the “first draft” of history, should a critic take that into consideration when analyzing NBC’s screw ups and behavior?

I’ve been saying for the past couple days that NBC is culpable. No matter how much power Williams has or had there, producers were not only involved with the original story in 2003 but the continuing string of lies. The cameramen and women may have been scared [email protected]@less to say anything as Williams went rogue.

All of this being said, there could clearly be something wrong with the man (am I being too sympathetic all of a sudden?) Something that requires therapy, soul searching and perhaps a new job.

There is no way he can walk back into this, but neither is Brian Williams more than the embodiment of what could be a very sick system.

Think of it: does anyone want to disturb the golden goose? And what is more golden that a war hero?

p.s. As a journalist, let me say, I’d be freakin’ terrified in a helicopter in Iraq, any copter. So if nothing else, this man has been brave. Duplicitous, but brave.

well said. I don’t know if I’d call it brave, but he definitely got his man card (sexist I know) punched just by getting in the helicopter. Getting in knowing you could be shot at is the test and the measure.

Carl H Jones says:

Ever heard of “gonzo?” Bit of self involvement in a story is not uncommon. If I were a journalist on the front line, I would certainly fabricate some personal perspectives given the opportunity. Hunter S Thompson l raise my glass to you & Brian. Get over it you guys.

Larry Molmud says:

I was thinking of HST when this whole shitslide started, but I really don’t think Williams will ever be in the same league as Hunter. This isn’t Gonzo at all.

Putting the poppycock in the Peacock. Or, giving a whole new mangled meaning to original NBC News anchorman John Cameron Mitchell’s catchphrase “Let’s go hopscotching the world for headlines.”

… John Cameron Swaye

Jane Freiman says:

It’s a noble notion to put forward that Williams should have investigated himself as a leader/anchor. But I feel that’s unrealistic. The Brits have a word: presenter. That defines Williams’ duties and those role of current TV anchors. They present scripted news.

Let’s not forget that the Cronkite and Murrow generation came out of print and actually spent years in the field as war correspondents. The Vietnam/Cambodia generation — Ted Koppel, the late Ed Bradley etc — including their TV crews actually covered that war on the ground.

Unlike Williams, they didn’t arrive with an entourage to act like war correspondents for a few days. It’s what a presenter does, not what a newsman does.

Even granted that Iraq has been a more difficult war zone for reporters on the ground, there is ABC’s Martha Raddatz who manages it. Imagine what NBC’s excellent Richard Engel must think of Willliams and his mendacity.

Richie Esposito will investigate. But it is not in NBC’s interest to discredit Williams — quite the opposite. So that won’t go anywhere.

The replays of what Williams has said about his various “reporting” experiences don’t lie. His credibility is gone. That means he cannot continue to even present news. He’s not believable and he’s become the butt of jokes.

His career as an anchor is effective ended. Whatever the NBC investigation shows his smartest move — and the best thing for him going forward — is to step down, not just step aside for a while.

He brought this on himself. He needs to let some time pass and then come back in some new role. This is not going away.

I’d like NBC to take a look at the number of “stolen valor” people and statements have been reported in the news and why.

Is it because war stories and “if it bleeds, it leads” is too good to “check it out” before printing or airing it?

To me, this has been more troubling than exaggerated or conflated memories of people who were *actually* there!

Soldiers in Brian Williams’s Group Give Account of 2003 Helicopter Attack Another pilot, Rich Krell, Mr. Simeone and Mr. Kelly said, flew the other helicopter in their group. Mr. Krell told CNN on Wednesday that his helicopter had been fired on, too. But on Thursday, he recanted his story and said he was “questioning his memories.”

Brian Williams will be out of NBC for good on Wednesday—and signed up with CNN or the Comedy Channel by this time next week with a fabulous new deal for a talk/comedy show.

If that doesn’t sum up the state of the TV news business perfectly, I don’t know what does.

(This whole phony window-dressing of placing soon-to-be-network-news-anchors in fabulously dramatic situations to up their credibility…rings more hollow than ever in this scenario.) Maureen Dowd got it right-on in today’s Op-Ed.

Morgan Mason says:

Has anyone comfortably trusted TV news reporting since the departure of Walter Cronkite from the CBS Evening News? It’s been one disappointment after another with Brian Williams simply the latest installment. The consequences of news for profit were bound to surface eventually, albeit gradually, until it can no longer stay hidden. It is what it is, but it is not news reporting in the Cronkite genre of journalism. It is entertainment. And look how well it is working. This latest installment in the soap opera of TV news has everyone’s attention. It’s like passing a car wreck; you know it is wrong, but you cannot help stopping to gawk.

Telmea Story says:

I’m curious to know if the various military crew members who have outed Williams are in any jeopardy for releasing privileged information that messes up a great American cover story. Isn’t that why Manning is serving 35 years?

I trusted Brian Williams, and I don’t know why I’m still shocked when people I believe and trust, lie. I hate liars.

He also misremembered facts he saw and experienced during hurricane Katrina. The French Quarter did not flood, making it impossible for him to have seen a “body floating face down in water, from his French Quarter hotel. He also stated he got dysentery from drinking flood water. Not true. According to a local physician, his dogs drank the water and they were fine. There were NO cases of gastrointestinal problems in this city.

Juan Carlos Brandt says:

Jay Rosen’s piece and analysis accurately depicts the situation and what many of us, loyal followers of Brian Williams, cannot comprehend. Personally, I am profoundly disappointed at Mr. Williams for shattering the credibility I had in him and NBC News.

I’ve been thinking about this today as I started to read some counter-replies to the Williams story of those who want to say “let’s put the Williams ‘lies’ in context. He bragged, big deal.” Was trying to figure out why it was a big deal.

And I’m not sure in the Iraq story it is. I think it matters more in the New Orleans-Katrina story. If he says he was in a hotel overrun by gangs, and now we can’t be sure. If he says he saw “looting” and we can’t trust his statements. This story it (arguably) has more of an impact. And more of an impact on direct Americans. The Iraq helicopter story actually happened to US soldiers. But the Katrina-New Orleans story is a story about the way people (largely black) in New Orleans behaved in the chaos. It’s tinged with racial language. That **matters** if the viewers of NBC Nightly News can’t trust his account anymore.

Richard Aubrey says:

As somebody noted, “Brian Williams” is a joke. You don’t need to say more, or hear more. You just snicker. His name is a punchline. There are contests to Williamize various implausible actions.

Making up stories putting himself into various things which were actually happening does not reflect one way or another on what was actually happening, but it does reflect on what we can believe about what was happening. If he needs incoming rounds to make himself look bigshotish, and if they aren’t incoming…. Hillary needed the incoming which weren’t forthcoming and got caught. This is where misreporting starts. Is Tuzla under sniper fire? That would mean their perimeter is less than, say, a mile and a half in radius, which, dammit means something.

Williams, as Rachel Larris says, has, along with the rest of the media, an enormous backlog of apologies not made about their NOLA coverage. One reporter noted that BW’s NOLA hotel was the staging point for law enforcement. Not likely overrun with gangs.
It is one thing to put oneself into a story, but the requirement easily morphs into redoing the story to make yourself fit.

I also wonder if NBC wonders if viewers tuning in to see the next installment of this or the next self-imposed catastrophe count for advertisers.



John Chuckman

Brian Williams, American television network anchor caught telling his audience a fantasy version of his experience on a foreign assignment, has unintentionally provided us with a near perfect allegory and tale of caution about American journalism and the role it plays in politics and foreign affairs.

I am not referring to the fact that a number of prominent Americans have done exactly the same thing Williams did making false public claims of risky deeds, this Münchausen-like condition being surprisingly common among American politicians. Hillary Clinton, in her 2008 nomination campaign, claimed she came under fire in Tuzla, Boznia in 1996, when her plane landed. Actual video of the harrowing event showed her being greeted peacefully by a young child with a welcoming poem. John Kerry, in his quick four-month “grab some glory for a future political career” stint in Vietnam made exaggerated claims of risk and bravery and certainly decency when indeed most of his activities involved shooting at peasant farmers working their fields from his heavily-armed patrol boat on a river, ferrying the odd cutthroat assassin for the CIA’s ghastly Operation Phoenix project, and killing a man, likely Viet Cong, who was lying on the ground badly wounded by the boat’s heavy machine gun fire. Rich men’s sons do get medals for rather hard to understand achievements.

The awful truth is, given the state of American journalism, stunts like that of Williams, despite their symbolism, are virtually without concrete importance. American network anchors like Williams are expected to have good looks, good voices, and sincere, home-townish demeanors while reading scripts. Beyond that, they have almost no connection with what most people understand as journalism. There is the odd effort by large American networks to make their handsome talking heads seem to be at the center of events, the most hilarious of which in my memory was CBS’s Dan Rather garbed in Afghan-style robes crawling around on the ground somewhere pretending to be secretly reporting something or other about Afghanistan, his soundman, lighting technician, cameraman, and make-up artist never making an appearance. Such absurdities lend theatrical flair to American news and probably help frustrated journalists stuck with million-dollar, talking-head jobs feel slightly useful, and you might say they are therapeutic, but they have nothing whatever to do with journalism.

Journalism, as it is taught in schools, is about discovering, or at least suggesting, through a series of well-defined techniques what is actually happening in events of interest and reporting the findings in a non-biased, almost scientific, way, but, remarkably, this is something which virtually never happens in American journalism. Truthfulness and journalistic principles simply have no place in the intensely politically-charged atmosphere of America where no event and no utterance is without political dimensions. Actually, this has been the case for a very long time, but it just hasn’t always been so starkly clear as it is now. The same Dan Rather mentioned above, rising star reporter back in 1963, shortly after the Kennedy assassination, told an audience of millions he had seen the legendary Zapruder film – an amateur 8mm film taken by a man named Zapruder which unintentionally recorded Kennedy’s death. Rather, in almost halting words and with eyes often turned downward suggesting the immensity of what he claimed to have seen, described to millions how the film showed Kennedy slumping forward after being hit in the back by a shot from the “sniper’s nest” with Governor John Connally then hit while turned around towards the President, coat open, widely exposing his white-shirted breast, and with a third shot causing the President “to move violently forward” as his head explodes. Except for the count of three shots striking the car’s occupants, Rather’s description was close to a complete fabrication, but the public didn’t know that until 1975, twelve years later, when the film was first broadcast. (There was actually at least one more on-target, non-lethal shot plus a missed shot hitting a street curb, but even Rather’s three shots, given before security officials had sorted out their story line, was ignored by the feebly-dishonest Warren Commission when it later told us there were only two shots plus a miss.) Even in the film’s almost-certainly doctored state – after all, it had been purchased immediately after the assassination, and held for years, by Life Magazine, a known cooperating resource for the CIA in its day – the film shows Kennedy in distress from a neck wound as he emerges from behind an expressway sign, almost certainly having been shot from the front owing to his body position and the motions of his hands. Connally does turn but his coat is not open exposing his shirt front, and, judging by the time interval involved, is hit by a separate bullet (something he himself maintained in all testimony). The film then shows Kennedy hurled backward as his head explodes, absolute proof by the laws of physics of a shot from the front.

American major news broadcasts and newspapers all have become hybrids of infotainment, leak-planting, suggestion-planting, disinformation, and other manipulative operations. Many of them, such as The New York Times or NBC, maintain a seemingly unassailable appearance of authority and majesty, but it is entirely a show much like a grand march being played as a Louis XIV sauntered into a room, at least when it comes to any important issue in foreign affairs and even most controversial matters in domestic affairs, as with the Kennedy assassination or a thousand other examples from election fraud to corporate bribery. Massive corporate media consolidation (six massive corporations supply virtually all the news Americans receive), the dropping of most foreign correspondent and investigative journalism efforts owing to high costs, the constant and ready compliance of the few remaining owners of news media to adhere to the government line no matter how far-fetched, plus America’s now non-stop interference into the affairs of other people, have made American television and newspapers into a kind of Bryan Williams Media Wonderland where no reported item of consequence can be accepted at face value.

The owners of America’s news media have every reason to comply with government wishes. Failure to do so would immediately cut them off from access to government officials and from the kind of juicy leaks that make journalists here and there look like they are doing their jobs. It would also be costly in the advertising department where the sale of expensive ads to other huge corporations is what pays the bills. And it would simply not be in keeping with the interests of the very people who own massive corporate news outlets. After all, it was an American, A. J. Leibling, who told us with precise accuracy, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”

Americans, the broad mass of them, simply do not know what is happening in Ukraine or in Syria or in Palestine or in a score of other places under assault by America’s establishment, its de facto, ongoing, non-elected government. Those place names are mentioned of course, and regularly, and various interviews are conducted, and maps and charts are shown, but the careful listener or reader will see that none of what is offered is genuinely informative, all of it serving to build one pre-determined idea of events, many of the words resembling the kind of one-liners politicians repeat over and over in America’s literally content-free political campaigns. We see many bits and pieces of seeming information, but they are all just pieces taken from the same jig-saw puzzle, capable only of being assembled in one way.

Americans also have very little idea of the nature of the men who are the actors in these various places, America’s press and networks virtually never granting or soliciting the insights of foreign leaders and representatives not already toeing the American line. Thoughtful foreign leaders generally are only seen through brief images and highly-colored descriptions.

Americans also are rarely informed of the consequences of their government’s acts, informed in hard facts and numbers such as the number of deaths and injuries and the extent of destruction. America’s press has covered up countless facts such as the number of Iraqis killed in the First Gulf War, the number of Iraqi children who perished under an American embargo so feverishly championed by Madeline Albright, or the number of Iraqis killed and crippled by the George Bush’s “I’ll go one better than Pappy” invasion. They never saw pictures of women and children torn up by cluster bombs unless they deliberately searched them out on the Internet. When Americans are given numbers, such as deaths and refugees, as in the American-induced Syrian conflict, it is only because the numbers are said to be the Syrian government’s responsibility, with no reference to the gangs of foreign mercenaries and thugs paid and armed by America or its associates in the region.

For Ukraine, any numbers and facts Americans receive are shaped to fit the construct of an aggrandizing Russia, led by a new Czar intent on upsetting the balance of Europe, opposing a now free and democratic government in Kiev. You can almost imagine the smiles and snickers of the good old boys gathered in planning meetings at Langley a few years ago when they realized how their scheme could both give them Ukraine and discredit Putin, the only reasonable actor in the whole dirty business. No images of Ukrainian militias and thugs displaying swastikas and other neo-Nazi symbols, no discussion of repressive measures taken by the new crowd at Kiev against Russian-speakers, no discussion of a country starting a war on its own people who stood up for their rights, and no discussion of an incompetent Ukrainian military shooting down a plane-load of civilians.

I don’t know whether Brian Williams just became so comfortable over his years of work broadcasting fantasies that he grew easy about adding a personal tall tale or whether he may suffer from some unfortunate disability, but his ridiculous affair does provide us reason to focus on contemporary American journalism’s real function, which is anything but journalism. I think it likely the reason corporate news executives were in a flap over the affair, having handed Williams a 6-month suspension, is not scrupulous concern for truth – there simply is no such thing in such organizations – but fear of having one of the chief presenters of so many other misrepresentations made a laughing-stock.

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