In 2007, Managing Editor of NBC News, Brian Williams, attended a Newsweek Executive Forum and answered submitted questions to him in front of an audience. One of the questions he chose, from an anonymous participant read:
“How has the Iraq war coverage by mainstream media caused distrust of the ability of the media to give us the real news?”
Williams immediately became incredulous at the very insinuation at the idea that media was not giving viewers and readers an objective view of the Iraq war and even more so that some anonymous coward would dare question his credibility or the credibility of his colleagues:
“I’m going to say to the questioner, who chose not to sign this, with a straight face, please be my guest. Fly commercial tonight on Royal Jordanian, New York to Amman. And then from Amman, you’d take a commercial flight into Baghdad international airport. Try not to notice the corkscrew landing you have to make to avoid the SAMS (surface to air missiles) on the way into the airport. Hire yourself a good security person, get some body armor for the drive from the airport to the motel of your choice in Baghdad and please I beg you, go do what we do. On your way perhaps, stop in Germany and visit my friend Kimberly Dozier who now has two titanium legs. Or perhaps on the way to Kennedy, visit my friend Bob Woodruff up in Westchester County where he is recovering.“
Williams continued, visibly angered as though trapped in a glass case of emotion:
“Do you sense some emotion on this? What do you think we’re doing? This isa product of the internet. I read it every morning. Where do we hide ‘the real news’? Do we have a closet in New York? Do we keep it behind a curtain in Baghdad? Don’t you think that our bureau chief would like to go outside today as part of his job? Bob Woodruff was traveling with an Iraq unit trying to tell the good news we are told is out there. We can’t leave our compound.”
Williams then dramatically waived the anonymous questionnaire in the air, neverminding the fact that he still hadn’t actually answered the question:
“For all of you represented by this unsigned question. Please know that’s the answer. Get visas, and go! And blog about it. Tell us all what you find. and how it differs from what you’re seeing on the mainstream media.”
For those who can’t speak Spanish, there’s a video link below:
As it turns out, it didn’t even take bloggers committing daring areal stunts while dodging rockets to uncover how events in Iraq were very different from Williams’ description. It simply took a group of veterans calling him out “On the internet”.
After a post on Facebook and faster than Williams could say great Lincoln’s mullet, Williams recanted a story he had been telling since 2003 about a Chinook helicopter he was flying in taking fire from an RPG, a story he claims he simply mis-remembered. Except he mis-remembered it several times. He remembered looking down the tube of the RPG, what the farmer looked like and how he felt, but the actual getting shot part – hazy. As it turns out Williams wasn’t even in the Chinook copter he cited in his apology. His Chinook landed 35-40 minutes after the formation that took fire.
Anonymous bloggers even didn’t have to parachute into Katrina ravaged New Orleans, drink flood water and fight off wild feral dogs to uncover more inconsistencies behind more of William’s harrowing claims of seeing dead bodies in the Superdome. Nor did bloggers have to fly from New York to Israel to uncover embellishments of being hit by Hezbollah rockets
Upon returning from his photo op with the troops in Iraq, Williams took to the airwaves like Verbal Kint reading a bulletin board and stated his experience was “Like something out of Saving Private Ryan and Blackhawk Down“, a story confirmed by one of the vets on the ground that day. That is exactly what this is all about. Williams believes he’s the star of a Steven Spielberg movie where he can be cast to play any role he wants. He can be a grizzled war veteran, a storm weathered protagonist taking on FEMA Bush Administration Zombies or even a volunteer firefighter saving puppies.
Williams exists in a world where he hears his own theme music, written exclusively for him and performed by John Williams, inside his own head everywhere he goes.
News anchors long ago, as well most journalists in general, realized that social media was not going away. The idea that online, news happens instantly and anyone with a smart phone can report on it. Anchors became obsolete almost over night. They were forced to adapt to it by becoming part of the stories themselves. A example of this was on full display recently in Ferguson, Missouri. The images from riots and live streams were infinitely more interesting than anything happening on MSNBC. Short clips from Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Conan O’Brian or John Oliver are shared daily on Facebook and Twitter. Gifs and Vines litter thousands of Tumblr pages. Because the lines of news and social sharing have been irreparably blurred, it doesn’t ultimately matter to Brian Williams if sixty percent of the time, he’s being honest all the time.
Just by googling Brian Williams there are as many images of him alongside Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey or David Letterman as there are of him posing at a news desk, in the field or with Edward Snowden. He hosted Saturday Night Live in 2007, has appeared on 30 Rock and even performed stand up comedy at the famous Caroline’s in Times Square. We need comedy and nothing almost brings us as much joy as seeing people in a profession where they are forced to take themselves seriously take time out to lampoon and make jokes every once and awhile, but Williams, not unlike our current President seems as though he would rather be an entertainer over the job he was hired to do. Williams surveys the fossilized remnants of his profession and wonders why guys like Stewart and Fallon get to have all the fun.
Entertainment through Embellishment has become a pre-requisite for news broadcasts which have become more about branding identity than anything else. Go back to how this story broke in the first place. Brian Williams was doing a report on NBC Nightly News about Brian Williams. A veteran he met while in Iraq was honored at Madison Square Garden during a New York Rangers game. The Williams segment was about how Brian Williams knew him. Does anyone remember the veteran’s name or his story? No. They do remember Williams’ face on the jumbo-tron.
That’s all that matters to Williams and NBC.
There’s Brian Williams with Tom Hanks, there’s Brian Williams with Jimmy Fallon and Jon Stewart. There’s Brian Williams with David Letterman or Conan O’Brian. There’s Brian Williams on Tina Fey’s show. There’s Brian Williams laughing along with Larry David.
Williams has made a career out of hanging out with people all cooler with more interesting stories than him.
That goes for Bob Woodruff and Kimberley Dozier. That goes for the troops under real fire in Iraq, the same Troops Williams snubbed for an appearance on Saturday Night Live.
Now Williams has taken a hiatus and Saturday Night Live, The Daily Show and Fallon go on without him.
That’s what stings the most about this to NBC and Williams. Not his credibility as it relates to the field of battle. Williams is forced to do the thing that must devastate him the most; backing out of public appearances. He cancelled an appearance on Letterman this week and probably won’t be showing up for his weekly engagement playing the jazz flute at Tino’s. He can’t walk into Restaurant Daniel in Manhattan, glasses in hand without the fear of being served a cat turd.
How important Williams is to NBC’s brand is all that’s left to decide. It’s safe to assume when Alison Williams, Brian’s daughter, landed the part for NBC’s live special of Peter Pan, it was in no small part because of her last name and pedigree with the network. It would be foolish to believe Williams isn’t a cornerstone of that brand. Williams is counting on his likability as a comedian and performer to survive this, not his credibility as a managing news editor.
If NBC believes it can weather this storm, floating bodies and all, and wait for the social media cycle to move on to Taylor Swift Grammy reaction gifs with help from allies in media, before the month is out, Williams will be slow jamming this scandal on Jimmy Fallon and all will be forgotten. The strategy seems to be polarize the scandal to the point of making it look like it’s just internet conservatives ranting about a conspiracy or as Sean Davis from The Federalist coined it, BRIANGHAZI.
Williams can make more appearances on SNL, win the Stanley Cup, defeat the Stay Puft Marshmellow Man and win an Oscar. There’s only one problem in all of that.
Williams in his apology stated that in attempt to honor troops he ended up lying about them. Repeatedly. That’s the conflict he can’t escape no matter how many jokes he tells on Letterman. Williams can’t go on demonizing the war while also wrapping himself in the glory of the troops. If Williams wants to star in the SNL parody of Tony Clifton goes to Baghdad, he’s welcome to do that, but not at the expense of our troops or our tragedies.
That’s the answer to his anonymous question.
– SM –