When Matt Lauer looks back on his long career in journalism, he won’t likely cite interviewing disgraced former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams as one of his big gets. In-house gimme interview notwithstanding, Lauer did press Williams on the central question of his fall from grace.
Did Williams lie? Or did he just unwittingly tell untruths? The stakes here are enormous, especially for somebody who makes money as a journalist. Professionals can be forgiven for misremembering events or stumbling over facts from long-ago events. They cannot be forgiven quite as easily for straight-up lying.
After an uproar over Williams’s false account of how he took on incoming fire while riding in a helicopter during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, media organizations investigated a number of sketchy Williams accounts of his reportorial past — many of which surfaced in free-talking interviews on late-night tube and the like. While Williams began serving a six-month suspension that began in February, an NBC News investigation found 10 to 12 instances of embellishment.
A significant chunk of worldly opinion looked at the specifics and reached the least charitable conclusion. For example, Politico media critic Jack Shafer headlined a piece back in February, “Why Did Brian Williams Lie?”
To hear Williams tell it, he didn’t lie! His ego did.
In all candor, that interpretation of his remarks is a bit facile. But have a look at the back-and-forth between Lauer and Williams, and reach your own interpretation. In defending himself, Williams noted that he’d always been careful with his words on NBC News broadcasts, a standard that suffered whenever he was interviewed off the network’s air. “I used a double standard, something changed,” he said. “I got sloppier. I said things that weren’t true.”
For that double standard, Williams blamed himself, or at least a part of himself: “It had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else, put myself closer to the action, having been at the action in the beginning,” said the anchor, who has lost his job as “NBC Nightly News” anchor and will be doing breaking-news duties at MSNBC.
Lauer persisted, asking specifically about the helicopter story: “But was it conscious, Brian? … Did you know it was not true?” Williams responded, “I told the story correctly for years before I told it incorrectly,” a response that sounded like a beleaguered anchorman’s version of a certain John Kerry flip-flop. “I was not trying to mislead people. That to me is a huge difference here,” said Williams.
That wasn’t the end — Lauer wisely hovered on this issue. So Lauer noted that Williams’s detractors will say that he had to have known that he wasn’t telling the truth in all these instances. Williams stuck to his story: “I see why people would say that. I understand it. This came clearly from a bad place, a bad urge inside me. This was clearly ego driven, a desire to better my role in a story that I was already in. That is what I’ve been tearing apart and unpacking and analyzing.”
Maybe Williams has spent recent months taking a sledgehammer to the drywall, studs and joists of this “bad place.” MSNBC had better hope so. But to “unpack” Williams’s own explanation, the “bad place” has been controlling his utterances for years without his awareness. That’s another hard-to-believe tale from Williams.
Tours through the cerebral innards of Brian Williams notwithstanding, the interview shone an unequivocal light on one truth: These months have been “torture,” as he described them to Lauer. He looked beaten down, far from the shiny and confident fellow who used to be asking the questions on set.