Alternate headline: “Maureen Dowd publishes first consequential column in 15 years.”
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.
Any reason to believe Dowd’s sources? Actually, yeah. Variety reported last week that Williams “had been counseled in the past by senior NBC News executives to stop telling the [Iraq chopper] story in public.” That’s two separate claims from (presumably) different sources that the NBC brain trust knew he had a habit of lying. In fact, make it three separate claims: Here’s a juicy bit buried in Politico’s story about the troubled Brokaw/Williams bromance.
“Brian always feels the need to embellish,” [a] NBC veteran said. “He has always been known for telling stories dramatically, and he’s known for making any story about him.” But the bluster had always seemed more like a quirk than a time bomb. “It was more people eye-rolling: ‘That’s Brian,’” the NBC veteran said.
Friends of Williams were initially mystified, and have become irritated, by the lack of support for the anchor by NBC News and Comcast. He is the face of the news division — a priceless asset — and these friends feel he has been hung out to dry, which has encouraged insiders to assume the worst and outsiders to pile on…
But the lack of support is partly Brian’s fault, according to some colleagues. “A lot of people have been very loyal to Brian over the years, but he doesn’t jump in when other people need help,” said one person who has long known him. “He is not a stick-out-his-neck person.”
That last bit raises the possibility that the NBCers who are whispering to the press about Williams’s for lying are just grinding axes. But if that’s what’s happening, why implicate NBC executives in a cover-up of their anchorboy’s mendacity? Why not just say, “Williams lied around me all the time but I was afraid to tell the higher-ups for fear he’d retaliate”? To this point I thought the only bombshell that might come out of this is proof that Williams lied about more than just the Iraq chopper attack; now I think the big bomb waiting to burst is evidence that NBC, which supposedly cares so much about its news division’s credibility, kept this guy on for months or years knowing that he was telling fish stories on national television to people like David Letterman. That would destroy my argument on Friday that Williams’s lying isn’t *that* big a deal — a news agency’s credibility is institutional, I said, not a function of the blow-dried prompter-reader who anchors the nightly newscast. What if the whole institution covered for his lies?
Makes me wonder about that “investigation” of Williams that NBC’s supposedly launched. Howard Kurtz and Erik Wemple are both reporting today that, contra other reports last week, the network isn’t investigating Williams; rather, they’re investigating the circumstances of what actually happened during the Iraq chopper incident. (And the New Orleans hotel incident? And the Katyushas-over-Israel incident? And whatever newly dubious incident we’re about to revisit today?) This way, says Kurtz citing a source at NBC, “there will be no report with a finding on his conduct.” Good thing too — if the investigators started making judgments about Williams’s conduct, they also might start making judgments about what NBC executives knew, or should have known, and when. NBC management can tolerate replacing Williams so long as they don’t have to replace themselves.