Williams quasi-mea culpa: "A bad urge inside me ... ego driven"

Yesterday, NBC announced that its long-running drama over the Nightly News anchor seat had concluded with Lester Holt keeping the job permanently. The network banished disgraced former anchor Brian Williams to the least-watched American cable news channel, MSNBC, to read breaking-news updates. In order to get even that perch, Williams had to offer a public mea culpa, a confession over which Matt Lauer presided this morning on Today.

Lauer presses on him on whether he intended to lie, but Williams didn’t quite own up to it. He’s still saying that he didn’t intend to mislead people, and he tells Lauer that he didn’t think he was lying at the moment that he was telling the untruths. Lauer isn’t quite buying it, and critics likely won’t either:

In his first interview since being suspended from NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams admitted to and apologized for past mistakes, telling TODAY’s Matt Lauer, “I said things that weren’t true.”

“It has been torture,” Williams said, of the months since he was suspended. “Looking back, it has been absolutely necessary. I have discovered a lot of things. I have been listening to and watching what amounts to the black box recordings from my career. I’ve gone back through everything — basically 20 years of public utterances.”

An extensive review by NBCUniversal into Williams’ reporting in the field and commentary from a period of more than 10 years found that he made a number of inaccurate statements about his role and experiences in covering events in the field. Williams, who has been suspended since February, opened up about what he says has been a difficult period.

“I was reading these newspaper stories, not liking the person I was reading about, wanting — I would have given anything to get to the end of the story and have it be about someone else, but it was about me. These statements I made, I own this; I own up to this and I have to go through and see and try to figure out how it happened.”

Later, Williams framed it this way: “I said things that were wrong. I told stories that were wrong.” He said, “I own this and I own up to this,” but he never quite admits to knowingly and deliberately lying about his experiences. When Lauer presses him on the number and breadth of his deceptions, Williams instead falls back to a broad apology and says that “things will be different.” He takes a pass on Lauer’s invitation to correct the record on any other anecdotes.

As one person on Twitter noted, it sounds like Williams needs therapy more than a television slot. It’s a strangely passive, non-specific assumption of responsibility that Williams offers — not quite a mistakes were made approach, but not far from it either. Williams notes that his behavior in the serial deceptions were “ego driven,” but his quasi-mea culpa seems constricted by the same impulse. Lauer doesn’t sound convinced, and viewers probably won’t be either. Given that, it’s pretty clear now why Williams is at MSNBC rather than out in the field re-establishing his journalistic credibility.

Finally, though, it evokes some pity for a man who’s been a national joke for months, and who can’t get out of his own way enough to resolve it. A network can’t have a public BS artist as its anchor, especially one who repeatedly aggrandizes himself and his experience through lies, certainly. However, it’s not as if Williams cooked a story out of malice, as did Mary Mapes and 60 Minutes II in 2004, or helped sell off American uranium interests to Russia like the Democratic front-runner for President did while taking an avalanche of cash from the bankers in the deal. The only person Williams hurt was himself, and it’s a bit sad that he can’t quite turn the corner enough to start doing himself some good now by simply being fully honest with viewers — and himself, really.