In partial–and only partial–defense of Brian Williams

brian-williams-02-aBrian Williams may be about to lose his position as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News. It is now clear that he has deviated from the truth in recalling what happened to him in a 2003 helicopter incident in Iraq, and he may well have told outright falsehoods while reporting on-site about Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Once the story became public, Williams, to his credit, acknowledged that he made mistakes. He apologized for what he had done to NBC News and his largely loyal audience. It seemed as if the NBC emperor had no clothes. Williams wisely chose to temporarily remove himself from the tempest by unilaterally taking a few days, or perhaps longer, off from behind the anchor desk.

Let me state up front that I am not a fan of Brian Williams. The gestalt of NBC News repels me with its blaring music, as opposed to the somewhat soothing Aaron Copeland piece that introduces and closes CBS Evening News.

Williams has done some thoughtful reporting and is certainly skilled enough to do what is probably the most difficult part of being a television anchor, covering a crisis that is breaking and juggling the information that is coming in from multiple reporters and producers. But even if every word that Williams uttered was truthful and accurate, he would still fall short of the standards of “America’s most trusted journalist,” the moniker once given to Walter Cronkite, the consummate professional.

Williams looks to me like a newsman the way actor Jon Hamm would. He is Hollywood handsome, meaning that he has a “pretty face,” but does not seem to have lived a life of stress and endurance, the kind that really weathers you. Growing up, Brian Williams might have had some experiences similar to those of Marilyn Monroe. He just never could be treated as “one of the guys.” He must have been revered for his looks and the grace with which he carried himself. He was likely seen by many others as America’s model person, but unfortunately he was preserved before he even matured. He became so statuesque that some might conclude that he has a glass jaw and it would take only a feather to blow him over.

Williams never was, nor could he ever be, an ordinary guy. He looks about as real in military garb as Michael Dukakis. He doesn’t have the “in the field” credibility that his colleague Richard Engel has, or CBS’ Charlie D’Agata, or Holly Williams. If Williams is to be a network anchor, he needs to be a “stay at home” anchor who does not venture into places like Iraq or hurricane-stricken New Orleans.

His difficulties in relating to ordinary men and women are compounded by what NBC does to him. They hype him as being the paragon of truth and virtue. In their minds, he is the gold standard of journalism. Such a contention is unfair to both the journalist and the viewers. It not only is not true, it cannot be true. Journalists need to earn and retain our trust. They are most believed when they are modest and low-key in their presentations. NBC News makes Williams be more bombastic than he is naturally inclined to be, so he becomes a caricature of himself. Perhaps unwittingly, NBC has been setting Williams up for the big fall even before he became Nightly News anchor.

With regard to Williams’ misstatements, it is important to keep in mind that all of us are inclined to mis-remember occurrences in which we have been involved. Sometimes near-traumatic events are mulled over and rehashed in our dreams to the point that it becomes difficult to tell what really happened.

Williams, like most of us, needs someone to help him keep his bearings straight. He cannot do it all alone. He is not Superman. It is wise for him to take some time to reflect. He might also want to seek professional counseling.

The more understanding he can gain about how different he is from the trusted voices of the past such as Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley, the better he will be personally and professionally.

Williams is walking on a precipice where one more misstep might be his last. Because his reporting has generally been fair for someone working in the mainstream and because his employer has exacerbated his vulnerabilities by hyping the opposite, he deserves another chance. If he is given it and he takes it, both he and his viewing public will be better off.