Brian Williams decided on his own to step aside from his NBC newscast for several days and was under no pressure to do so by network executives, a person familiar with the situation says.
The move on Saturday, developed in consultation with the NBC brass, was not a thinly disguised suspension. In fact, no one, including NBC News President Deborah Turness, suggested that Williams take time off, this person says.
What’s more, according to the source, NBC is not conducting an internal investigation of its anchor, as has been widely reported. The network is engaging in journalistic fact-gathering so it can respond to questions about the crisis created by Williams’ false story about having been in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. That means there will be no report with a finding on his conduct, this person says.
This was a bomb that had been ticking for a while.
NBC executives were warned a year ago that Brian Williams was constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading network anchor felt that he needed Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by flourishes to puff himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.
But the caustic media big shots who once roamed the land were gone, and “there was no one around to pull his chain when he got too over-the-top,” as one NBC News reporter put it…
With no pushback from the brass at NBC, Williams has spent years fervently “courting celebrity,” as The Hollywood Reporter put it, guest starring on “30 Rock,” slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon and regaling David Letterman with his faux heroics: “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.”
As his profession shrinks and softens, Williams felt compelled to try to steal the kind of glory that can only be earned the hard way.
Per this CNN Money report, a Brian Williams’ Katrina tale appears to have evolved somewhat dramatically over the course of just one year. In 2005, Williams reported in a documentary that he had “heard the story” of a man killing himself in the Superdome. The following year, during an interview with Tom Brokaw at Columbia Journalism School, Williams said, “We watched, all of us watched, as one man committed suicide.”
During an event at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation on Feb. 8, 2008, an audience member asked Williams to name the highlights of his career.
“I was the first person to walk into the hotel room of Nelson Mandela the morning he woke up and learned he’d been elected president,” said Williams…
But Williams told that story a different way during an NBC News broadcast on Dec. 5, 2013, the day Mandela died.
“We now want to take you back almost 20 years to an April morning in 1994 in a hotel suite in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela had been elected president the night before — I had the honor of being the first Western journalist that day to shake his hand and sit down and talk with him,” said Williams.
At the start of the war there was the big “shock and awe” bombing campaign where command and control facilities were strategically and precisely taken out with big bombs. I had been channel hopping through the coverage but happened to be on MSNBC. Williams was reporting from Kuwait at the time and he made a comment, the precise verbiage escapes me and I haven’t been able to find a direct quote online except this one, that this was like Dresden.
Dresden, wholesale carpet bombing of a city with little intrinsic military value. Shock and Awe; targeted controlled bombing of command and control facilities of high military value. Two events that could not be more disparate in their goals and methods.
My jaw hit the floor. How could he possibly say that? How could he possibly think that? Did he not know what Dresden was? Was he trying to toss out jargon to make himself look smart without understanding the nature of the jargon being tossed? And is anyone at the Pentagon watching this broadcast?…
But that one incident revealed a lot to me about Brian Williams. I know he was White House correspondent and heir apparent to Tom Brokaw but that was a bush league move a lightweight out of his depth newbie would make.
“When I was young, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not,” Mark Twain once quipped. But misremembering events is a real issue, with serious consequences. It is also inevitable among storytellers — journalists as well as politicians. Perhaps you know the game “telephone.” You put people in a circle, and someone whispers a brief set of facts into the ear of the person next to them, and it goes around the group. The final telling is inevitably much different from the first version.
New research shows that the same dynamic is in play when we tell stories ourselves. In the retelling, new details are introduced, others dropped. We aren’t recalling the original set of events, but rather our last retelling of it. “Memories aren’t static,” explains Northwestern University researcher Donna Bridge. “If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time … your memories might integrate the new information.”…
Williams’ critics have produced timelines showing how his accounts from Iraq became more lurid with each passing year. They’ve done the same with Williams’ Hurricane Katrina recollections. All that proves, as Hillary Clinton noted, is that he’s human.
If this is how memory works, a professional journalist should be on guard—and it’s certainly fair to criticize Williams for winging it the way he does. But that’s a much different thing from calling the man a liar and demanding his firing. One former U.S. Marine named Zach Iscol agrees. On Friday, he urged his fellow veterans to accept Williams’ apology.
Clever studies tell us just how powerfully words and images can manipulate memory to the point of inserting false memories. In one, researchers interviewed the parents of their experimental subjects, all college students, and collected true stories about events each of the studies had experienced.
After presenting these true stories mixed with false ones, researchers were able to trick 25% of the perfectly healthy students into thinking they had experienced one of the false stories just by having had them imagine any connections they might have to what they couldn’t remember. Brian Williams had plenty of connection to the downed helicopter.
In another study demonstrating the disturbing ease with which the human mind can create a false memory, researchers doctored a photograph to show adult subjects as children in a hot air balloon, and 50% of the adults ultimately believed they really took the balloon ride. Mr. Williams has been saturated in photos and video of the downed Chinook for many years now.
Part of Williams’ self-delusion is that he’s some sort of ordinary Joe in touch with the real America. He nudges profiles to describe him as a “blue-collar Jersey guy.” His dad was an executive, not a coal miner. He fancies himself as in tune with the working men as he collects $10 million a year for successfully looking “troubled” or “sincere” or “amused” while reading 20 minutes of script off a prompter.
NBC, which had several other employees on the Chinook who apparently narked on Williams because nobody can stand this classic self-promoting ass (“He’s a real pompous piece of s–t,” a longtime colleague told Page Six), warned him from the beginning not to embellish the truth, and a source told Variety with pride that Williams’ tall tale was never featured on an NBC News program…
If Williams remains on NBC, it will be impossible for him to report on the military. Every time NBC News calls him (as its president did in December) “one of the most trusted journalists of our time,” Twitter and Facebook will detonate with reminders to the contrary. Williams sits on the board of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. Probably he’ll be forced to resign from that.
Does NBC News need that embarrassment?
It’s unclear just what benefit may accrue to Williams from disappearing from the broadcast. A far more journalistic approach would have been to stay in his anchor chair and answer every last criticism that has come his way in recent days. New York University professor Jay Rosen pointed out that the rest of the media has busied itself nailing down the fine points of the helicopter outing that Williams has so mangled in repeated interviews over the years:
“[W]hy 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.”
Your recent post on the Brian Williams “adventure” on a helicopter brought to mind a parallel that might be accurate; the “Guitar Hero syndrome.” I could also throw in pre-ripped, stone-washed jeans for good measure into the stew of things that seem to indicate a psychology dominating the American scene whereby people want to appear as if they are more involved in something than they really are (or actually care to be).
Why practice a musical instrument when you can simply pick up the video game and within a few days, tada! You are now a guitar hero. Don’t want to actually get your hands dirty moving dirt around the yard or climbing rocks or building roads but nevertheless want to appear as if you haven’t been laying on the couch all day playing video games (guitar hero, maybe)? No problem; simply head on down to your local clothing outlet of choice for a wide selection of (what used to be considered) work pants that now come in all varieties of ripped, scratched, and discolored to make it appear as if you’re “street-wise.”…
Brian Williams, bless his mostly-honest little patriotic heart (really, I do tend to like the guy), has either inadvertently or purposely pulled a complete guitar hero on the U.S. military with his little faux pas of journalistic integrity. I actually think it’s worse if it WAS inadvertent, as that would confirm what we all suspect (those of us who are concerned about this subject), that America really does believe that it is/has been more involved in the military’s travails than is reality…
Some of us have actually put our lives on the line for real and take great offense when others try to gain street-cred by associating themselves with us. Nobody likes a moocher, especially not one who tries to mooch off the ONLY lasting and noble thing to come out of years of hardship and pain that are what Soldiers refer to as “life.”
There’s no more attractive story than one suggesting that an important or powerful figure is a hypocrite. It’s the war hawk urging the dispatch of young men and women into harm’s way, but whose draft deferments or sketchy medical condition exempted him from the draft. It’s the liberal voting to bus children to school while sending her kids to private academies. It’s the tribune of moral virtue paying for abortions for the staff assistant he knocked up. It’s the environmentalists flying to a climate change rally in a private jet.
Brian Williams is, in this sense, a perfect fit. His inaccurate, or misleading, or deeply dishonest account of what happened in Iraq seems to put the lie to a career that has featured him in the midst of one danger or another…
I do know that there’s one idea that struck me as eminently on point. It comes from Matt Dowd, the recovering political operative and ABC News analyst, who tweeted: “Maybe [the] news media can learn from this episode and start being a little more compassionate when others mess up.”