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.”]

© 2015, Edward Champion. All rights reserved.

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5 Comments

  1. Oh, geezus h christmas …

    This whole post sets aside the “moment of truth” period that 2003 must have been for our young(er) Brian Williams … in the early days of the Iraqi War, with the US pushing towards Baghdad, and — importantly — a *full* year or more before Brian would be announced and then take over for Tom Brokaw as sole NBC News Anchor, there would be EVERY MOTIVATION to exaggerate the quality of his “embed” experience with the US troops.

    And his embellishments and exaggerations regarding the “event”, while not chronicled in your analysis — but appearing elsewhere — includes that a MEMBER of his TV CREW was “injured” in the RPG attack (that appears to be a complete falsehood), and that he and the “downed crew spent two terrible (my word for it) nights on the ground”, in enemy territory.

    What happened to the producers and other NBC crew members who were there or who were directing Williams over the period? Why haven’t ANY of these staffers come forward, even if in retirement, to speak up for Williams, now that his very identity as a trusted, credible hard-newsman is being torn to shreds? That silence, unless everyone is dead, is damning …

    As a complete coincidence, last evening and hours before learning of Williams admission 23 minutes into his broadcast (or, right at the end, given that the total doesn’t include commercial breaks), I had seen “American Sniper”. As I’ve commented elsewhere, I have mixed feelings for the film, its depiction of a “gun culture”, and its “ra-ra, all-things-military-are-sacred-vibe”. But what struck me also were the depictions of the valor of most soldiers and efforts to act honorably, even in the worst possible conditions on earth to be found in.

    So, later last night, I get home, and discover the whole brig-ado enveloping Mr. Williams. Let the record show, I hold petty envy already towards the man… despite Frankenstein-like looks (offset perhaps by the most important virtue in media — physical height), Mr. Williams now earns by published reports at least $10/M a year, a 5 year probably-ironclad contract bestowed on him by Turness (and in hindsight, another probably catastrophic decision by her, but who could have known? Who, indeed, NBC News. Who, indeed). Not only that, but he’s paraded around across all of NBC’s (and PBS’s: see, Sesame Street!) properties, like The Tonight Show.

    But that’s not all. There’s the curious case of talent-deprived Allison Williams, who because I never watched “Girls” on HBO (we’re cord-cutters here), I didn’t come to realize was Brian Williams daughter until I began to assume that she *must be* Brian Williams’ daughter when I started to here the relentless promoting of that “Peter Pan: LIVE!” show during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Commercial (I mean, “Parade”). Hmm. The “emerging actress” who is a daughter of the network anchorman, appearing on … the same network. The same network that regularly thinks it good business to employ other famous daughters, like Jenna Bush (not the smart daughter, the other one) and Chelsea of the multimillion handful of puff pieces for … NBC News, anchored by “managing director” Brian Williams!

    But it doesn’t stop there. Mr. Williams, an object of PR opportunity for the network, and so revered by the social elite in NYC, somehow is married to a woman who has come to have her OWN 1-hour radio weekly radio show, Bloomberg.edu, all about “education” (haven’t heard much about private or charter schools though).

    So, this patriarch, who has the presence of mind and foresight to align all these incredible opportunities, for himself, his wife and daughter (and that’s all I know about — bet he must have other “lesser” children, who perhaps like Jenna Bush, just haven’t had their “big break” yet, like Allison’s on this season’s premiere of “Girls”, when her character (and apparently, Allison herself, unless its some sort of amazing CGI), has her *rear-end ‘eaten-out'” in a depiction (??) of a cravenly disgusting sex act. Parents must be so proud at her acting range, I’m sure) — this paragon of “hard journalism” and 10 cent words, he just can’t keep the facts straight when it comes to BEING SHOT DOWN WHILE IN A MILITARY HELICOPTER, an event that he says almost cost a member of his crew his own life.

    RIGHT. Sure. We all make such mistakes. If only the “harsh, unforgiving light of media criticism was cast on all of us, we too would be revealed to … have lied about acts of valor and heroism?” No, for the most part, we wouldn’t.

    And a note on that for one more moment. What irks so many tonight at Mr. Williams isn’t that he “lied at all”, but what it was he lied about. Ending where I began, a unifying theme for almost everyone who has seen “American Sniper” is a feeling of loss and pride for the men and women who serve, who put it all on the line, and end up losing everything far too often.

    *This* is what Williams appears to have wanted, whether we take it all at face value (that he lied by designed, enabled and supported by a debased and now completely without credibility news organization and its executives, a fair assessment given the circumstances), or we choose to “leap” to “grab onto theories” that are designed to excuse and tolerate the egregious, immoral behavior … that Williams wanted to WRAP HIMSELF up in a glorious act of heroism, to demonstrate his VALOR in being in harms way, but not allowing it to interfere with his God given work. And then last night, to so legalistically try to define things like “following the helicopter”, et al … it’s just nauseating.

    He is *DONE*. NBC and Comcast need to either try to fire him for cause (it would seem they would have a case, unless — of course and is likely — they gave him an employee friendly contact), or simply eat the 5 years and take a $50 write down.

    Because … how can the unit go on with a *Known Liar* running it? It’s incongruit and the football gods will have their vengeance. Look, it didn’t end up so well for Jayson Blair. Why should it for the white, tall, strangely shaped face Brian Williams?

  2. And one more thing I’ve been reminded about with this whole Brian Williams episode:

    I *never* believed Lara Logan’s claim to have been “sexually gang assaulted” in Tahir Square, either.

    The assertion that, separated from her crew, and after being viciously ganged raped (I presume it was rape, but maybe it was something short of that? It always seemed to be suggested but never really defined), on the street by a mob of Egyptian men, she was not only “saved” by a pack of Egyptian women who came to her aid, but then she somehow got in a cab, went straight to the airport, found thousands of dollars in her shoe (because her wallet and purse and credentials would have been stolen, right?), bought a first class ticket to JFK, and flew — despite her assualt injuries not being treated! — direct to NYC, and only then, seeking medical attention …

    …well, that’s pretty preposterous, IMHO. A cynic would say: “She probably invented much or all of that story, for the same reason that Anderson Cooper claimed to be “assaulted” by the mobs, too … to get BREAK-OUT ATTENTION in a personality-driven era.”

    Given her other, um, “questionable conduct” (?), choice of men she’s been involved with and some of the things at least one has been linked too, and given the demise of remaining paragon of virtue Williams, is it REALLY that far-fetched to not question *ANY* journalist who claims to have “become part of the story”?

    No, it’s not.

  3. Let the jealous-haters have their say. Brian has had a good run telling us the objective news – nothing “embellished” there! – but the jealous-haters must have their democratic right to free speech. Notice that the jealous-haters never have to answer for their speech as it changes from one “embellished maybe” to the next as they continually weave thjeir web of The Great Conspiracy.

    Brian’s War Story is his own…it is his nickel and he can spend as he sees fit.

    If only the jealous-haters would hold their favorite politicians to such high standards. But then again a politician by nature, nurture and design is not able to tell the truth even when he knows it.

    “But your Honor I would be most willing to tell you the truth just as soon as Mayor Walker and his lawyers tell me what it is!”…..Jimmy Biggs, Chauffer to the former Mayor of New York City, Jimmy “The Gentleman” Walker.

  4. Lying has crept into the embarrassed soul of our culture. The unabashed certainty of the protaganists in the face of improbability has transformed the public square into the discourse equivalent of a Persian Bazaar.
    The unanswered question is “why?” What is the root of this abandonment of honor? Has the era of the visual language, cinematic language, if you will, damaged the collective conscious’s ability to parse communication? Are we becoming stooges?
    — or is what we describe as civilization just bouncing along on the roller coaster of illusion?

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