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.”]

Roxana Robinson (The Bat Segundo Show #503)

Roxana Robinson is most recently the author of Sparta.

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Author: Roxana Robinson

Subjects Discussed: The New York Times as a source of inspiration, writing a novel with a sense of time, the 2008 economic crash, the fate of the millennial generation, ailing veterans who are overlooked by society at large, unemployment, focusing exclusively on educated characters, writing about subjects you don’t know, talking with vets, being fair when using stories, Donovan Campbell’s Joker One, not using traumatic experience to preserve trust, distinctions between journalism and fiction writing, being terrified of white sedans, fear and panic triggers, why there isn’t a universal common experience among soldiers, getting to know a fictitious character’s family, the desire to visit Iraq, the need for embedded novelists, the present state of Iraq tourism, staying silent on creative details, playing tennis in inflatable courts, Ian McEwan’s unwillingness to discuss his current project, how giving away information on your latest project destroys momentum, whether self-preservation is an admirable choice in digital culture, setting Sparta in Katonah, New York, why houses are important in novels, celebrating a landscape that you love, why it’s essential to use an exact floor plan, Conrad’s miserable experiences in restaurants, California restaurant culture vs. New York City restaurant culture, not remembering the name of a restaurant but remembering the layout, Conrad vs. Joseph Conrad, how to relate the experience of returning to the States after four years of combat, celebrity magazines having more impact on American culture than soldiers, comparisons between Vietnam vets returning home and Iraq vets returning home, soldiers who are invisible, when all of America understands we did the wrong thing, why “Thank you for your service” is the wrong thing to say to a veteran, how to connect with a vet, having nothing but your military training to rely upon when moving forward in contemporary culture, women who tolerate patient aggressive behavior, avoiding female characters who are emotional doormats, balancing the need to advance the narrative with characters who serve in some ways as instruments, macroeconomics classes, difficult GMAT questions, Georgia O’Keeffe, similarities between Conard and O’Keeffe, unintended inspiration from significant artistic figures, biography vs. fiction, Conrad’s concern for cleanliness, intense shaving scenes in fiction, Marine culture and personal appearance, calls and responses, rage and depersonalization, minor quibbles from Heller McAlpin, vets and therapists, and the Marshall Plan.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: My understanding is that this book started with you reading a front page article in The New York Times in 2005 or 2006. But to my mind, Sparta seems to be more than that. It’s almost a response to certain socioeconomic conditions. Because what Conrad — this Marine returning from Iraq — has to go through is very similar to what a lot of unemployed men have to go through. There’s also the faint suggestion that this is the great terrible horror story right before the 2008 economic crash with the apartment near the end. So I’m wondering to what extent this became a response to conditions in the latter Bush years and how this tied into your research and getting this massive project started. Just to start off here.

Robinson: (laughs) Okay. Yes, as you are aware, it came about because I read an article in The New York Times. It was about our troops in Iraq and how they were given unarmed vehicles in which to drive and to go on patrols with, and how they were being blown up by IEDs and suffering traumatic brain injuries, which were then not diagnosed and treated. In my head, it wasn’t part of this economic crisis. I wasn’t really focusing on that and I think when I began to pay attention, it was before that happened. And what I’m talking about really isn’t the same as people losing jobs. Because this is a kind of transformation. And, of course, you’re right that someone who hasn’t a job has lost some essential part of himself or herself — if that’s been part of his life up until then. But this is different. Going to war, being trained for war, and being at war, and then coming back and being part of a community that has no understanding and no ability to enter into your own experience — that’s different.

Correspondent: Maybe a way of approaching this question — because there is, in fact, this Go-Go guy shows up near the end. There is mention of predatory lending. There is mention of securitization. It leads me to wonder whether when you’re taking on any kind of novel project, you need to actually have that sense of place. Because one of the reasons why this book extended beyond a mere character study was largely because I felt very much that I was reliving the last term of the Bush Administration. Warts and all, by the way. So this is why I’m asking. Was it really just a matter of talking to all of these vets — and visiting, I presume, the VA hospitals — to get a sense of time? How does a sense of time factor into developing this book?

Robinson: Yeah, that’s very interesting. You’re right. I do want to make sure when I’m writing a book that every part of it works. So when I place it, I usually set my books in the very recent past. A year or so. And it’s often quite hard to track down exactly what was going on. We all have a telescopic sense of time. So it’s hard to know exactly what happened. But yes I was very aware of the economy and how Conard’s generation shifted from happy-go-lucky guys into bundled assets and insider trading and all of that. That turned into an avalanche of bad debt and bad conscience. And yes, it was part of the way America had been led and led astray. And one was in Iraq and one was at home. So you’re right. You’re right. It’s just that I didn’t think of him as being someone who was without a job. But certainly you’re right about the whole ethos of America during that period.

Correspondent: I think the parallel I draw between Conrad’s situation and the scenario of many unemployed people of both genders is that we have increasingly moved, thanks to the Bush Administration, into a culture where those who seek help feel shameful of it, are not permitted to actually pursue it, are prohibited by funds. You’re supposed to tough it out. And the parallel I drew between Conrad and many unemployed people I know — who I’ve been on telephone support with — was substantial. Especially when he has this terrifying ordeal in the VA hospital where he’s told, “Well, you have to wait three months.” And he has a serious problem to take care of. So this leads me again to go back to this idea of looking at a situation — whether it be a heroin addict in Cost or whether it be a soldier returning back from Haditha in Sparta. Does focusing in on one angle of America allow you to tackle its many ills and to expose these common conditions that were putting our heads in the sand here over?

Robinson: Yeah. I’m always interested in consequences. And so when I explore one thing, I am always fascinated to see if there’s a network of fault lines leading out from whatever the central issue is. Cost is certainly not an indictment of anything. It’s simply an examination of a problem that’s more widespread than I understood when I started that project. And in Sparta, I was incredibly troubled to understand what we were doing to our troops at the time. I never supported the war. I never thought we should go there. It was more troubling to learn that there were not weapons of mass destruction and that there never had been. And so I wanted to bear witness to what it was like for one of our soldiers to go there and then to come back. And that exploration illuminates one part of the American experience for me.

Correspondent: Sure. Well, on this subject, I’m curious to ask you about the fact that the last two books take place in upper and middle-class environments and present an underexposed issue in both cases. And this leads me to wonder whether you’re trying to target a particular type of literary audience who may not in fact read the newspapers or the magazines or who may want to keep their heads in the sands. Is it your goal as a novelist to get otherwise erudite people to open their eyes a little bit by this socioeconomic setting? To really look into problems that they may not otherwise pay attention to? Especially in this culture right now, where it’s +1 everything and we’re supposed to like everything and we’re supposed to turn away anytime there is anything that is unsettling.

Robinson: I don’t really have a target audience. I don’t think in those terms. I’m a novelist. I’m not a journalist. I’m really not trying to persuade people of anything. As I say, I’m just bearing witness. And this particular part of society is the one that I know best. Educated people, not particularly rich, but who come from modest backgrounds. But they’re all educated. That’s sort of the main connection between all the books that I have written. But am I trying to tell a certain audience how to think?

Correspondent: Not necessarily how to think. But more exposing their eyes to the fact that, look, this problem is not going to go away. These people, they may be in your family. They may actually knock upon your door. You can’t just continue to read about, I suppose, domestic couples who are committing adultery. You know what I mean?

Robinson: Right. Well, yes, I’m not interested in easy targets. So the problems that draw my attention are ones that I find really compelling and really disturbing. I don’t know who my audience is. I’m not trying to reach a particular audience by choosing the people I do tend to write about. But there are always subjects that I find really troubling. And so if other people do, that’s great. But these are things that become very, very compelling to me.

Correspondent: So you are drawing upon your own background and you’re trying to just step outside of it so that you can understand another aspect of humanity, whether it be drug addiction or vets or that sort of thing.

Robinson: Yeah. I mean, I think that writing about subjects you don’t know is really important for a writer. Writing about circles and communities that are not your own is really risky. Because you’re going to get so many things wrong. So many signals. And so I’m not saying I would never do it. But I’m much more interested in exploring an idea and the way it reveals itself in a community than I am in trying to interpose myself in a community that I don’t know.

(Loops for this program provided by chefboydee, Keishh, MaMaGBeats, and Reed1415.)

The Bat Segundo Show #503: Roxana Robinson (Download MP3)

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