By Chuck Ross
Like many others, I was surprised that Brian Williams, after being suspended for four months, could not bring himself to say — during his interview with Matt Lauer of the “Today” show that was broadcast last Friday, June 19, 2015 — that he lied to us.
Jim Watkins, a news anchor at Media General’s WTNH in New Haven, Connecticut (an ABC affiliate), wrote this on the station’s website soon after watching Williams’ interview with Lauer on Friday: “Brian Williams is not good at apologizing. The now-officially-former ‘NBC Nightly News’ anchor wasn’t good at it when Exaggerate-Gate broke last winter, and he wasn’t good at it today even though he had nearly five months to practice.”
Watkins, who once worked at WNBC in New York, then noted these examples from Williams’ interview (the parenthetical asides are made by Watkins):
—“I told the story (about an imaginary brush with death covering the Iraq War) correctly for years before I told it incorrectly. I was not trying to mislead people. That to me is a huge difference.” (emphasis added, because whaaaaaaaa?)
—“I told stories that were wrong.” (He didn’t lie. The stories did. Bad stories!)
—“It’s hard to figure how it happened.”
—“It had to have been ego.” (Not necessarily was ego, but must have been, maybe..right??)
Jeff Seglin, an ethicist and public policy expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School, told Poynter’s James Warren, also in an article published last Friday, “The distinction [Williams is] trying to make between not telling true stories and lying is a bit painful to read,” he said. “Based on this lack of acknowledgment that a lie is a lie, it seems like he might have a way to go in accepting full responsibility and acknowledging what he did.”
After watching Williams’ interview with Lauer, it was startling to realize that it was taped over two days. Did NBC call Williams back for day two because they realized he hadn’t really done a good job apologizing after day one? Scary to think what it was like after just day one.
I recalled a passage I had read in Vanity Fair’s story about Williams in April. In that piece Vanity Fair’s Bryan Burrough wrote this about Williams preparing to broadcast his on-air his apology during “Nightly News” in February: “[NBC News president Deborah Turness’] biggest concern was the apology Williams was preparing to read to viewers on his broadcast that evening. He was already taping segments as he and Turness began swapping e-mails on its all-important wording. Turness and the other executives who had gotten involved quickly became frustrated, as they would remain for days, with Williams’s inability to explain himself. ‘He couldn’t say the words “I lied,” ’ recalls one NBC insider. ‘We could not force his mouth to form the words “I lied.” He couldn’t explain what had happened. [He said,] “Did something happen to [my] head? Maybe I had a brain tumor, or something in my head?” He just didn’t know. We just didn’t know. We had no clear sense what had happened. We got the best [apology] we could get.’”
Given Williams’ reluctance or inability to give a straightforward apology, and in light of the fact that, according to Paul Farhi in the Washington Post, “A months-long internal investigation of Brian Williams by NBC News has turned up 11 instances in which the anchorman publicly embellished details of his reporting exploits, according to a person familiar with details of the probe,” why is NBC so eager to have him become the face of MSNBC?
That’s when I recalled another part of Burrough’s Vanity Fair piece. That April report had this paragraph near its end: “Williams’s future, NBC insiders insist, remains up in the air. He and [NBC News and MSNBC chairman] Andy Lack are close friends, leading to widespread speculation that Lack will reinstate him once his suspension is complete. But people close to Lack [who rejoined NBC News in March] say nothing has yet been decided. Many NBC observers simply can’t imagine a network anchorman ever returning to his former position after being exposed as Williams has. The most Machiavellian scenario, floated by an NBC partisan, is that Jeff Zucker, whose distaste for Comcast executives is well known, has fanned the flames of controversy so that he can eventually snare Williams for CNN—not as a newsman but as the long-sought replacement for Larry King. ‘That’s the perfect solution,’ a source says. ‘Zucker gets a star, and Brian gets the talk show he always wanted.’”
Indeed, Ronald Grover, who has been covering the entertainment business for almost 30 years, wrote in TheStreet last Thursday, “NBC likely decided to keep Williams…for fear he would find a slot at another network. One possibility would have been for Williams to join cable news channel CNN, which is headed by former NBC Universal chief executive Jeff Zucker.”
The reason NBC would be afraid about Williams joining CNN is that he still has millions of fans, and NBC officials don’t want them watching him on a competing news channel.