NBC's Brian Williams, On Top of the News
Monday, December 5, 2005
NEW YORK -- Brian Williams still has nightmares about New Orleans, and on Thursday morning he woke up with an irritated throat from being around the dried mud that continues to cover the Ninth Ward.
He had returned the night before from his sixth visit in three months to the devastated city, and by the 2:30 p.m. editorial meeting was again pushing to lead "NBC Nightly News" with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"We will never forget this story," says Williams, who even while relaxing in his office keeps his yellow-and-blue tie tightly knotted and the French cuffs of his crisp white shirt fastened. "It looms too large in my life. Journalists can be marked by the events they cover. I will always feel like a bit of a witness."
One year after succeeding Tom Brokaw, Williams, 46, has changed the job in several ways, most notably by writing a daily blog, poring over readers' e-mail and occasionally dashing off answers. But from his first foreign foray as anchor, when he was summoned to cover the Asian tsunami during a New Year's Eve dance with his wife in the Caribbean, Williams has been defined by disaster.
"I noticed a change in his professional demeanor as soon as he came back from the tsunami," says NBC News President Steve Capus. "Before, he was kind of approaching it like he was filling in for Tom. When he came back, it was very clear, 'This is my broadcast.' He found his voice."
Such trips -- Williams was among the first to report on the human misery in the Superdome -- seem to have quieted critics who tended to dismiss him as an attractive lightweight. And Williams, who fires off BlackBerry messages to Executive Producer John Reiss at 2 in the morning, hasn't let up. "He has really ridden me to make sure we have almost no broadcasts without something Katrina-related," Reiss says.
Williams has established himself as the top-rated anchor just as the other broadcast networks are struggling with succession. When Williams took the anchor chair last December, he was competing against Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. But Jennings's death and Rather's early exit after the President Bush/National Guard controversy cleared the field for the man who had been waiting in the wings for years.
"I gave him a sleeping bag," Brokaw says. "I didn't know he'd have so much opportunity to use it."
Says Williams: "Tom did everything he could while he was in the chair to say to our audience, 'Please transfer your affection, loyalty and trust to this guy.' I owe so much of how smoothly it's gone to him."
Williams leads the pack with 9.5 million viewers over the past three months, compared with 9.9 million during Brokaw's last three months. ABC's "World News Tonight," with fill-ins Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, averaged 8.5 million, down from the same period last year, while the "CBS Evening News" has gained a bit under Bob Schieffer, to 7.2 million viewers.
Williams is driven -- instead of power-lunching, he often brings back a pizza slice from his favorite joint near Rockefeller Center -- and likens his life to that of the plate-spinning entertainer he once watched on Ed Sullivan. He is undoubtedly the only network anchor in history to be a NASCAR fan (and pal of the late Dale Earnhardt), White House and Supreme Court buff (he has a photo of the Warren Burger court signed by every justice), former volunteer firefighter and member of the Council on Foreign Relations (where he recently interviewed Joe Biden). So far, at least, Williams hasn't let any plates crash to the floor.
With a packed schedule, why does he spend time blogging? "It lets people in on our editorial process," Williams says. "I take our own folks to task when I think we've failed the evening before. Viewers deserve to know more about our machinations." During President Bush's trip to Latin America last month, Williams wrote that "we dropped the ball" on the president's mixed reception, blaming himself and some of his colleagues.