MSNBC announced today that Brian Williams would be hosting a new, half-hour program starting next week. “The 11th Hour with Brian Williams” will capitalize on Williams’ anchoring talents and comes just in time for the final weeks of a marathon presidential election campaign.
Commonly a new show of this sort prompts a promotional campaign in which the host chats with various media reporters to discuss the goals of the program. Not the case here: There were no interviews with Variety or CNN or the Hollywood Reporter. Williams issued a statement:
We want a broadcast that will feel like a continuation of the conversation we’ve had all during this unprecedented campaign season. As the general election ramps up, there’s an opportunity to assess and discuss the campaign at the end of each day. With the help of the very best team in the business, we hope to offer some closure and sanity in addition to previewing where the campaigns are headed next.
The canned statement marks another increment in a multi-increment plan by NBC News executives to rehabilitate Williams following his 2015 meltdown over a series of false statements/exaggerations/embellishments/outright lies (depending on your level of forgiveness) about exploits in his reportorial past. The scandal got its start when Williams, back in February 2015, apologized for having incorrectly stated that he rode in a Chinook helicopter that took incoming fire at the start of the Iraq War in 2003. Media outlets thereupon switched into investigative mode, uncovering a number of other incidents. NBC News conducted an internal investigation and slapped Williams with a months-long suspension.
In June 2015, Williams sat for an interview with colleague Matt Lauer about his record and his demotion as anchor of “NBC Nightly News.” It was good TV. Omissions, however, took place, as Lauer didn’t plumb the entire record of falsehoods, and Williams used colorful language to discuss his statements: “It came from a bad place, it came from a sloppy choice of words; I told stories that were not true, over the years looking back, it is very clear I never intended to. It got mixed up, it got turned around in my mind,” he said. There were plenty of loose ends dangling from the session.
And they haven’t gone away. An NBC source confirms that Williams hasn’t done any interviews since the Lauer spectacle, though he is included in MSNBC’s 20th anniversary look-back package. The head-down approach, insists the rep, is Williams’s way of staying focused on the work in front of him. There’s been plenty to do; about a year ago, he started popping up on MSNBC to cover breaking news situations — shootings, speeches and so on. The beat, of course, has included primary election night coverage, occasions when Williams has shown off the skills that elevated him to the top of his profession.
Self-preservation surely drives Williams’s no-interview policy. What got him in trouble, after all, were appearances on late-night talk shows in which he’d stretch tales of his doings beyond the reaches of fact. Whereas his critics once feasted on an ample public record of interviews, now Williams is leaving no trace whatsoever. The trouble is the hypocrisy: Here’s the TV interviewer who does no interviews.
The casualty is accountability. In their memorable chat, Lauer gave Williams the opportunity to correct the record on various embellishments aside from the Iraqi chopper ride. Have a look at how Williams wiggled his way out of the bind:
MATT LAUER: You said a second ago to me that you told stories, plural. The one that is most talked about is the chopper, the now infamous chopper ride. Are there other stories that you now admit that you told regarding other news stories you were involved in and covering that were also untrue?
BRIAN WILLIAMS: It is clear. And in many cases years later, I said things that were wrong. One is too much. Any number north of zero is too many. We can`t have it. I can`t have it in my life. I can`t have it in my work. I can`t have it in the company we work for.
MATT LAUER: But we– we live in a world right now, Brian, where people are not going to let this just rest. And so if there are other circumstances and other situations where you didn`t tell the whole truth, would you like to take this opportunity now to correct the record on those?
BRIAN WILLIAMS: I would like to take this opportunity to say that what has happened in the past has been identified and torn apart by me and has been fixed, has been dealt with.
From his perspective, perhaps. For everyone else, though, that was a whiff, one with continuing consequences for Brian Williams. He failed to talk about embedding with SEAL Team 6, about those Katyusha rockets allegedly flying below the Israeli military helicopter he was riding in during 2006 hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah or about his whereabouts as the Berlin Wall tumbled.
More than a year later, Lauer’s words resonate more than Williams’s words. “We live in a world right now, Brian, where people are not going to let this just rest.” Bolding added to highlight a group in which the Erik Wemple Blog is a member. We requested an interview and have our doubts about securing it.