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The Case for Releasing Brian Williams Into the Wild

When a public figure goes well out of his way to tell a dubious sounding Horatio Alger story in interview after interview, especially one that is permanently soaked in a saccharine bath of American idealism, it is natural to be skeptical. It is also quite healthy to take authority figures to task for their flubs and gaffes, especially when we entrust them to tell us the truth.

I have spent the better part of a day sifting through profiles and speeches and documents, speaking with very helpful and overworked people at fire departments and restaurants, entering into email volleys with university registrars, and chatting with Catholics. I am forced to conclude that NBC News anchor Brian Williams is probably not a liar.

After corroborating the details of Williams’s life story with numerous sources, I have discovered that Williams’s mind has been mostly precise when recalling the details. The one notable exception — and this has caused justifiable controversy — is Williams’s claim that he was on board a helicopter during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was recently called into question by three Army officers courtesy of the reporters at Stars and Stripes. But another officer — Rich Krell — has presented a third alternative that lies somewhere between Williams’s story and the other officers, turning the tale into a veritable Rashomon for media junkies.

Aside from stretching his short stint as a volunteer firefighter out to “several years” and fluctuating his upbringing between “grindingly middle class,” “solidly middle class,” and “classic middle class,” I have discovered nothing that would lead me to impugn Williams.

“My break came when Betty Endicott, news director at WTTG in Washington, called me into an office and asked me to close the door one day. She said, uh, ‘They told me you used to do this. You did on camera. You did small market television in news.’ And I said, I said, ‘Yeah, I did. Briefly. It was an experiment. A failed experiment.’ She said, ‘Do you have any tapes?’ And I said, ‘Well, they’ve long since been burned and taken to a licensed landfill facility outside of town.'” — “Brian Williams: My First Big Break,” February 2, 2012

Somewhere beneath the relentless layers of pancake makeup, an anchorman projected onto ten million television sets is as human as the rest of us. While we are privately jostled by our friends for missing a few key details in a juicy anecdote, Williams must tell the same stories over and over: building upon his narrative, embellishing it, and risking more if he slips up once. And because his highly scrutinized vocation is committed to a rigid objectivity, he’s never allowed to gush over a subjective experience like the rest of us. This accounts for why Williams repeats phrases like “licensed landfill facility” when he discusses how he buried his early resume reel as a struggling young man. The specificity sounds suspicious. It’s preposterous enough that someone would go all the way to a refuse site to dispose of an incinerated 3/4″ videotape, but why should it be called a facility? And why qualify it with the “licensed” modifier? Why not just say that you eviscerated the damn tape in grandiose despair? Well, how many of us have to willfully repeat the same stories hundreds of times with a camera watching over us?

popejp2Public figures — especially ones committed to mainstream journalism — don’t have the luxury of expressing passion and exuberance so freely. So when Williams talks of “meeting” Pope John Paul II “by positioning himself at the top of the stairs of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception” in October 1979 at Catholic University (the registrar confirmed with me that Williams was a student in the School of Arts and Sciences at the time), and an article with an accompanying photo reveals that the Pope was actually speaking on the steps (see right), should Williams be called a liar? Or can we let him off the hook by remembering a younger time when we “met” someone we admired simply by standing in close proximity?

The most significant inconsistency I found was in Williams’s flight from George Washington University to Pittsburg, Kansas, where Williams began his first (and unsuccessful) anchoring job at KOAM TV, working for $168 each week. In a 2013 interview with Alec Baldwin, Williams claimed that he packed up his belongings in the backseat of his Dodge Dart, along with his dog Charlie. But in a May 3, 2005 Landon Lecture at Kansas State University, Williams noted that he had bought a Ford Escort at Coffeyhouse Motors and claimed, “I rented a truck and I threw my trusty cocker spaniel in the front seat and I pointed my truck west from Washington and I moved to Kansas to start a new life and a new career.” Howard Kurtz’s The Reality Show: Inside the Last Great Television News War reports yet another version:

The unpaid bills and college debt piled up as Williams labored for meager wages, and when his Dodge Dart died one day in a cornfield, Bengston helped arranged a loan for a Ford Escort. But not even a new set of wheels could get Williams to a bigger market….Clearly, he had failed. Williams packed his dog, Charlie, into a Ryder truck, drove to Washington, moved into a basement, and took a courier’s job at the National Association of Broadcasters, delivering documents in a red station wagon. It was a huge comedown.

It’s worth pointing out that all of this occurred thirty-five years ago, a year before Williams got his big break at WTTG with news director Betty Endicott. Williams had landed a job as a chyron operator. Endicott learned that he had once been a reporter and promoted him on the spot. Willilams was covering the Pentagon not long later and on his way to an illustrious career. There is, of course, no way to confirm the conversation that transpired. Endicott is dead. The talk was behind closed doors. We have only Williams’s word for it. But it’s these details that are clear, not the struggle that led up to it. And why not? A successful person defines himself by the first moment of success, not necessarily by the incremental “fail better” moments that came before.

Which brings us back to Williams’s snafu with the helicopter. His memory, which is riddled with inconsistencies, is pitted against the memories of the Army officers. But Williams’s statements over the course of twelve years get opened up to public scrutiny. This isn’t the case for the officers. While it is undeniably interesting to see how Williams’s story changed, it also gives Williams an unfair disadvantage.

If CNN reported how I remembered an episode on December 31, 2000, it would probably read as follows:

January 1, 2001: In a largely illegible journal entry, Champion tries to recall what happened the night before in a drunken haze. “Clothes discovered on floor the next morning. Who is this woman lying next to me?” He doesn’t say that he made it with the woman in question, much less her name, only that he learned about her the next morning.

September 2001: Champion self-publishes a chapbook, Tortured Youth, that details the New Year’s Eve incident. The account is vague. A friend, who generously hands over the three dollars for this undercooked offering of autobiographical nonsense, credits “one of the Goth girls I see hanging at Elbo Room” for spotting Champion during that celebratory evening. The reader is told “We entered the apartment,” but the passage doesn’t state who made the first move, or Champion’s exact location. Whose apartment was it?

March 2004: During a secretly recorded chat, Champion speaks of that day in 2000 to an acquaintance who insists on documenting every moment for posterity. “I think I made the first move, but I can’t be sure. I was trying to put one foot in front of the other. Some stranger may have thrown a bottle at us.” This description suggests that Champion was under attack.

March 2006: Champion refers to the bottle attack, but cannot remember the woman’s name. Someone suggests that what happened on New Year’s Eve five years ago was probably nothing, but Champion recreates his artful leap from the exploding bottle on the ground, which he seems to recall more vividly than the woman.

February 2015: Champion tries to remember how he remembered that New Year’s Eve evening while writing about Brian Williams, realizing that if he had to deal with such insufferable media scrutiny on a regular basis, he’d be called a goddam liar for the rest of his natural life.

The above silliness is inconsequential to me. But if I were in any truly influential position, I am certain that it would be used against me.

Do news people have the right to tell their own stories even as they maintain objective stances on stories that they merely report on? Given the Choppergate ballyhoo, probably not. Or perhaps it’s just Williams who isn’t allowed to. He has made appearances on The Daily Show to demonstrate that he has a sense of humor, even as his nightly appearances on NBC suggest that he is something of a stiff. Television does not allow Williams to merge the two identities. Williams must carry on with these roles, adhering to the mandate embossed into the desk by top brass. Television news would be far more honest if Williams were to appear one night with a chainsaw, destroying his desk with a savage violence while reciting the news in a calm and objective voice. But if we can’t have that, maybe we should cut the guy some slack.

[2/6/15 UPDATE: Think Progress‘s Jessica Goldstein consulted several noted psychologists about the science of memory and how it applies to Williams. From Professor William Hirst: “You build your memories as you go along. We consolidate memories. There’s also evidence that, every time we retrieve a memory, it makes it vulnerable to reconsolidation. So if we retrieve something and tell that story at a dinner party, and slightly exaggerate your role, it reconsolidate to incorporate that exaggeration. And the next time you’re telling it, you’re building on that. You can see how the story can grow. And the stories we end up telling reflect the social framework in which we live.”]

sanjoseelectrictower

The Forgotten Tower

The first fallen structure that I ever admired was a 237-foot tower that once stood at the intersection of Market and Santa Clara Streets in San Jose, California. It was known as the Electric Light Tower and was hurled into the real from a newspaperman’s idealistic vision. James Jerome Owen knew that electric lighting was the future and, on May 13, 1881, he wrote an editorial in the San Jose Daily Mercury calling for the construction of an enormous tower looming over two streets, an electric landmark that would stub out the gaslights, showering evening luster onto the city with the same indomitable force as the sun. It took only seven months for the idea to seize the imagination of locals, and the tower was constructed and lighted by December 13, 1881.

electriclight1The tower never produced the searing glow that Owen longed for, but it served as a symbol of hope and progress to the people of San Jose. Electricity had only just arrived and the frame of the tower was juiced up by sizzling refulgence. Birds often smacked into its tempting bones, lured by the light, and it is said that policemen cadged a bit of pin money by hawking fallen duck corpses at local establishments. Drunkards often attempted to scale it. Moreover, San Jose had beaten Paris to the punch. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel pilfered the plans and, eight years after Owen’s gigantic tower was raised, Eiffel constructed his own version. This French treachery caused San Jose to sue Paris in 1989 for the century-long appropriation. In the trial, the architect Pierre Prodis claimed that the Eiffel Tower was merely a “trace job” of Owen’s vision. Paris triumphed in the court, but not without the famous engineer’s legacy sullied.

electrictower1I learned of the tower when I was five, attracted to the pointillist rings glowing on photos and postcards. I was smitten by the great circular aura shooting into the onyx skyscape from the six carbon arc lamps planted at the tower’s peak. And when my parents took me to Kelly Park, I became overcome with tumultuous wonder when my little eyes snagged onto a replica of the tower built in History Park. The replica was only 115 feet tall, recently constructed, and I remember asking the tour guide why it was so small. I had somehow remembered the height of the original, plucking it from some stray placard that most tourists ignored. What was the point of reproducing a tower if you couldn’t put it in the right place or match the previous height? The tour guide, sifting through his mental arsenal for general historical information to answer my question, told me how the original tower fell. Gale force winds had ravaged the tower on December 3, 1915. It was the deadliest part of a vicious storm. The center of the massive metal structure wended and wobbled and, just before noon, pipe and metal poured onto San Jose’s streets. I closed my eyes and began to imagine the beautiful tower destroyed, and I remember silently crying, knowing that the tower’s end was needlessly permanent. I don’t remember the tour guide’s exact words, but there was a peremptory tone in his voice, a suggestion that it was mad folly to build another tower and cause harm to future San Jose residents. San Jose still suffered from wintry winds every now and then. And there was still the possibility, especially given the freak 1976 snowstorm from a few years before, that the tower could do more damage.

CliffHouseStormI didn’t remember the snowstorm because I was an infant at the time. But like the Electric Light Tower, it had been captured in family photographs assembled in blue-covered albums identified sequentially by numbered stickers, so that I could trace the precise moment that the memories of my life aligned with the photographs. I had no memory of the snowstorm, but I had lived through it. I was forming memories of the electrical tower, visions that made it more real than any representation, yet I hadn’t been fortunate enough to be alive during the time of its existence. (I would have similar feelings for the Victorian version of the Cliff House constructed by Adolph Sutro in 1896, a magnificent multiroom palace with sharp gables famously captured in photographs during a thunderstorm. It burned to the ground on September 7, 1907 — another architectural tragedy, another great structure destroyed on a whim.)

electriclight2There hasn’t been a year when I haven’t thought about the tower. Yet I wonder how long I can keep its vision alive in my heart and mind. Nobody seems to remember it or care about it outside San Jose. Nobody wants to honor the tower that once attracted international attention. I can’t talk about the Electric Light Tower with anyone, especially on the East Coast. It is, like many funny ideas in the history books, an eccentric and possibly nonsensical idea. But for a decent stretch in history, it held one city together.

whistle

Memory in the Raw

This essay is about a thousand words.

Just after the poppers shot sticky glitter onto the hardwood floor and the horns (available in two strident tones!) bleated sweet fleeting salutations into the post-midnight air and the noisemakers rattled in response to wrist-shaking whirls, and just after the shouts and the hosannas and the well-lubricated well-wishing to friendly strangers, I spent 2011’s first minutes fully immersed in the Pratt’s New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow, grateful to a friend for the tipoff. I traversed Pratt’s open gates, passing the glum-looking guard in his square cage, hearing the sweet toots of botched tunes and vaguely diatonic offerings sounding as beautiful as an elephant giving birth (or I suggested; it was better to conjure comparisons without first-hand reference). I turned a corner and saw…

THE MIGHTY BRASS WHISTLING MACHINE!

A contraption defying easy steampunk cliches only a few hundred feet away! I departed our flock and sprinted through the foot-high snow patches, like some dog loosened upon an expansive beach. This spastic run sprang from a concern that there were only a few minutes of steam whistles left. Nobody had informed me how long it went on for. So I had to grab a quick look.

Standing ten feet away from the machine, I marveled at the elbow-like gauges and the grand gusts and the keyboards connected in the distance! Most pleasant was the vaguely preternatural noise, sounding like some alien landscape and keeping me spellbound, lost, completely at one with the experience before me. For this was the sound of a dead time being restored! A kind man reminding humanity of an age that came before iPods and World of Warcraft and…

I realize there is a picture attached to this post. I did not take it. It was snapped by somebody else. I did not consult the photo as I wrote the above paragraphs. It has been provided for your benefit so that you can get some tangential sense of what I experienced, even though I’d like to think that my words will be enough. It has become increasingly clear that words are no longer enough. But my description came entirely from my memory. It may not be entirely accurate. It may be unreliable. But I can tell you that I experienced a great deal of joy writing that paragraph and recalling a series of moments that involved great pleasure. And I hope that some of that ebullience has translated to the reader. I can also report that my memory feels truer than any instrument. On January 1, 2011, at approximately 12:10 AM. I had no camera. I had no cell phone. I had no contraption to memorialize the experience. I had no need to…

“Excuse me,” said some shadowy figure, “do you have a card? I’ve got you on video.”

That’s not precisely what he said. But that is pretty close to what he said.

At first I thought he wanted a Flash card. But I realized that he was referring to a business card. And it hadn’t occurred to me to think of business.

I don’t know who he was. Perhaps he was a starving student. Perhaps he was some yearly regular who needed the cash. Similar to one of those photographers who snaps you at social functions (and not unlike the more aggressive, more impoverished, and more interesting variety you find in Mexico and areas of Southern California) and then hope that you will pay out the dough. You walk away with a “memory.” He walks away with some cash. Capitalism in action.

It wasn’t my bag at all.

I did not want “video” or a “snapshot.” Wasn’t my experience enough? Wasn’t there enough wonder contained before my very eyes?

But the man shook me out of my apparent reverie.

I looked around and discovered that I was in the minority. Of the roughly twenty people around me, I saw a good fifteen holding some form of camera, feeling the overwhelming need to document the steam whistle machine. They had to grab the moment. They needed proof that they’d seen something wonderful. I wondered if some of them would put their cameras down.

Joanne McNeil has written about this phenomenon in relation to numerous cell phone cameras capturing President Obama’s speech at the Inaugural Youth Ball. And while her concerns are rooted in the things we choose not to photograph (a slimmer field in this epoch of sexting and more intrusive paparazzi), I’m wondering more about what separates the person who prefers to remember versus the person who needs to reconcile some memory against the memorialized item. If I’m not operating as a journalist, I’d say that I’d place myself more in the first category in relation to the human experience. This may be a more egoistic position. Because I’m essentially stating, “Photographs? Video? No, I don’t need any of that. You see, I’d rather believe in my admittedly imperfect and abstract recall for the remainder of my natural life.” It feels more dishonest and less human to match up my memory to meet the absolute data contained within a photograph. It is as if I’m filling out a form, never driving above the posted speed limit, or always coloring inside the lines. (Tom Bissell did this to interesting effect in his memoir, The Father of All Things, inventing fabricated moments from a single photograph. Did this get him any closer to knowing the truth?)

Given the choice between risking my imagination or an actual photograph fudging up the truth of what transpired, I’ll take the prospects of forgetfulness and hyperbole. I’m certain that my memory isn’t absolutely correct. But I’m more comfortable and more interested in the idea of people sharing their individual accounts of an event rather than relying upon an absolute photograph intended to sort out the mistakes. Besides, isn’t there truth in what people decide to forget? Isn’t there unexpected insight in what certain souls opt to invent?

Today, when I do something fun (such as the Pratt New Year’s Eve Steam Whistle Blow, which I wholeheartedly recommend to anybody who happens to be in that area of Brooklyn), I’m now in the minority. It has become essential to photograph everything. We’ve only had photographs for about 170 years and we’re more reliant upon the camera to confirm our existence than at any other time in human history. We must have our memory in the raw with an intermediary. Yet it often doesn’t occur to us that existence is sometimes best confirmed by existing.