Last year at this time, former NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was serving a six-month suspension for having uttered a disturbing number of falsehoods about his journalistic record — falsehoods about reporting in war zones and for seeing the fall of the Berlin Wall, plus embellishments about other topics. Following that suspension, Williams returned to work, though not at NBC Nightly News. He’s now an anchor at MSNBC who appears when there are big breaking-news moments.
“Hillary Clinton who, as most people know, is a world-class liar — just look at her pathetic email server statements, or her phony landing. Or her phony landing in Bosnia where she said she was under attack and the attack turned out to be young girls handing her flowers, a total . . . and self-serving lie. Brian Williams’s career was destroyed for saying less — just remember that,” said Trump.
After cycling through a number of other talking points, Trump finished his oration, yielding one of the most awkward moments in the recent history of cable television. There was the chiseled Williams, returning to the screen in his role as moderator of an in-depth analysis of a speech that referenced his very own misconduct. That in-depth analysis, as it turns out, managed to steer clear of the speech’s Williams moment. “Donald Trump started by saying this whole effort is his attempt to give back to his country. He made a brief plea to attract Bernie Sanders supporters to the Trump campaign and then went on the full-blown attack, as was expected in this speech, against Hillary Clinton at the end there promising to make America rich again, great again and safe again,” said Williams in his segue from the address. The anchor chatted with Katy Tur, the NBC News correspondent who has covered Trump from the get-go; he chatted with Hallie Jackson, the peripatetic reporter who blanketed Ted Cruz’s campaign; and he chatted with analyst Nicolle Wallace, who commented that Trump is “trying to give Republicans more solid ground to stand on.”
Throughout the presentation, Williams seemed a bit more dour than the jocular persona that he has projected on various Tuesday-night primary presentations during campaign 2016. Even so, the anchor steered the conversation toward important lines of analysis. At one point, for instance, he made reference to the growing role of Trump aide Paul Manafort, a longtime GOP hand. Was the speech “fairly judged through the prism of the beginning of the Manafort era?” Williams asked Wallace, who spoke about the influence of the Trump family on the campaign.
The bosses at NBC News opened themselves up to just this brand of embarrassment. They commissioned an internal investigation of Williams’s relationship with the truth, which, as it turned out, was episodic: 11 instances of embellishment/lies/falsehoods reportedly surfaced in an internal report. They read all the stories documenting the gulf between how Williams described certain things and how they actually happened. Yet they brought him back anyhow, in an experiment that has had some good on-air moments, as we’ve already written.
Embarrassments of today’s sort, however, loom over the entire operation. As we’ve written, Williams already faces dark on-air moments whenever overlaps emerge between his embellishing past and the news of the day. But who could have predicted that the Republican presumptive nominee would unfurl his case as a way to accentuate the alleged mendacity of Hillary Clinton? That’s a curveball that had to have caused a moment of panic in the MSNBC studios.
A representative for the network had no comment about the episode.
As for the merits of Trump’s comparison between Clinton and Williams, well, that’s a tough matter to evaluate. Though NBC News examined Williams’s bogus statements and duly demoted him as a result, it has never released the full results of its investigation to the public. As for Williams himself, he apologized on the “Today Show” and said that his inaccuracies came from a “bad place.”