The harshest penalties usually tend to be brutal, vengeful, and excessive – even when the offender is a celebrity journalist like Brian Williams. Suspended without pay from his post as the NBC Nightly News anchor for six months, Williams may be facing the end of his career in television news, which would be roughly equivalent to capital punishment.
Williams is in the public dock for telling a false story about his experiences covering the American invasion of Iraq; the disclosure humiliated him, his colleagues, and his network when exposed. For the time being, at least, he has lost the trust of many in his audience. Enforced absence from the job he loves — and wanted all his life – is a sanction that will sting far more than the barbed jokes, ugly headlines, and lost millions in salary. Off air, he may find time to engage in serious introspection, issue a forthright apology, and hope for redemption.
Troubling as his transgression was, I nevertheless hope for his redemption too.
No doubt my sympathy is spurred by the fact that I have known Williams for a long time, not as a friend or even a newsroom colleague, but as a frequent guest on a nightly cable news show he hosted and, years later, as the author of a magazine profile of him.
What I encountered then was a witty and unassuming guy from south Jersey who kept many of the same friends he had 30 years ago; an exceptionally hard-working correspondent who took reporting seriously; a history buff who avidly consumed books and newspapers to broaden his knowledge; and a dedicated professional who cherished the anchor position as a trust handed down across generations.
He always knew how lucky he was, and he certainly knows how badly he has stumbled. Whether he eventually can regain what he has lost is a matter for him and the suits at NBC to sort out. Inevitably, their calculations will include commercial as well as journalistic values. While that process unfolds, however, he deserves a few words of defense against the eager mob of executioners now swinging the ax with such gusto.
It is ironic, to put it very mildly, that more than a decade after the Iraq invasion, which resulted from official and journalistic deceptions on a vast scale, the only individual deemed worthy of punishment is a TV newsman who inflated a war story on a talk show. And it is irritating, too, that so many of the NBC anchor’s harshest critics are heard on Fox News Channel, where lying is a way of life, as Leonard Pitts, Jr., noted recently.
To recall just one especially pertinent example: Fox host Sean Hannity, who now demands Williams’ head on a stick, repeatedly told TV and radio audiences that “every penny” from his Freedom Alliance concerts would benefit the children of deceased veterans. It was a lie, because huge amounts of the proceeds were squandered on “conferences” and other dubious expenses. But Hannity got away with it because he evidently hadn’t violated any laws.
All the wingnuts ceaselessly barking about how Williams betrayed the vets could not have cared less.
Indeed, it is puzzling that Williams has excited so much frothing anger on the right, where lying and deception are routinely excused, especially about military service. (George W. Bush prevaricated blatantly about his brief stint in the Texas Air National Guard, and Ronald Reagan lied about “liberating” a Nazi death camp — but nobody on the right cared much about that, either.) If anything, Williams is resolutely nonpartisan, and when I profiled him in 2008, he seemed slightly more enthusiastic about John McCain than Barack Obama. The son of a World War II Army captain, he idolized his father and has always venerated Americans in uniform – which may help to explain, along with a muddled memory and an apparent urge to embellish, how he fell into this current difficulty.
So far as anyone has determined, Williams is not guilty of the ultimate crime, which would be filing a false news report. His exaggerations all seem to have occurred on platforms other than the Nightly News. Widely repeated accusations by a far-right blogger that he puffed his award-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage with anecdotes about flooding and floating bodies remain unproven — and there is persuasive evidence supporting his remarks.
It was during Katrina’s aftermath that Williams memorably demonstrated how well he does his work. Vanity Fair was not alone in praising his performance, noting that he “exhibited unfaltering composure, compassion, and grit,” the culmination of decades in broadcast journalism.
Today’s anchors are overpaid superstars, fighting for attention in a world no longer dominated by network news, but none of that is his fault. And in contrast to many of the charming faces on television news programs, he is an actual journalist with a long record of unblemished reporting.
So unless something worse emerges from NBC’s investigation, I share the view of Joe Summerlin, one of the brave veterans who really did survive that Chinook shoot-down in 2003, and publicly refuted Williams’ Iraq tale. His wording wasn’t generous, but his attitude is.
“Everyone tells lies,” the war veteran told the New York Times. “Every single one of us. The issue isn’t whether or not you lie. It is how you deal with it once you are caught. I thank you for stepping down for a few nights, Mr. Williams. Now can you admit that you didn’t ‘misremember’ and perform a real apology? I might even buy you a beer.”