Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of appearances Brian Williams made on entertainment programs such as "Late Show With David Letterman," "The Tonight Show," "Ellen" and "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" between 2006 and 2011. Williams made about 80 appearances on those programs and other entertainment shows during that period, according to the Internet Movie Database, not 146. A Washington Post analysis overcounted the entertainment shows, and the larger total also included appearances on "The Today Show," "Hardball With Chris Matthews," "Dateline," "The Rachel Maddow Show" and "Meet the Press," according to IMDB. Those shows are produced by NBC's news divisions.
The story of Brian Williams is almost impossible to believe.
And that’s just if you include the parts that are real.
It’s almost impossible to believe that a kid reporter who couldn’t find his way out of a small-market dead end would get his big-market break operating an off-camera graphics machine in a Washington newsroom.
But Williams did.
It’s almost impossible to believe that an upstart with only a light dusting of big-story experience would become the heir apparent to a broadcast legend.
But Williams did.
In his 55 years, Brian Williams has fashioned a life that needed no embellishment, a life so filled with gravity-defying success, with fame and riches, that it might have seemed too good to be true.
Yet some of the very traits that made Williams so irresistible to TV viewers — the intimacy of his storytelling and the eagerness to seal his legitimacy by proving his proximity to the action — are at the root of his undoing.
Interviews with more than two dozen of the “NBC Nightly News” anchor’s current and former colleagues reveal a man who took such delight in spinning yarns that he could sometimes lose sight of where the truth began and where it ended. Williams — who received a six-month suspension for lying about riding in a military helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade during the Iraq war — wanted to both report and entertain.
He needed to be respected, admired and liked, his current and former colleagues say. Even at the pinnacle of career success, they would marvel at his insecurity, an all-too-human condition that made him stretch the truth — all for the sake of a good story.
Williams and his Washington-based attorney, Robert B. Barnett, declined repeated requests to comment. NBC has also declined to publicly discuss any details relating to Williams and his suspension.
“This is very distressing,” Bob Wright, the chief executive officer of NBC from 1986 to 2007, said in an interview with The Washington Post. “He was always very fond of his role in journalism. It’s not a casual thing for him. It has always been a very serious endeavor for him, and behind all of this is a really terrific guy and a great journalist.”
Wright, who helped Williams rise through the ranks at the network and has remained close to him and his family, declined to discuss the allegations that have been raised about Williams’s remarks. But Wright said he never heard “any concerns about his conduct or the appropriateness of what he was saying on the air” while he was running the network.
On camera, Williams was preternaturally gifted, cutting a handsome figure with a serious but easygoing manner. His prominent chin skewed slightly to his left, giving his face a kind of permanent complexity and expressiveness. He could play it straight delivering the news in a rich baritone. He could stick to the facts.
Tom Bettag, a veteran producer who worked with Williams on the short-lived news magazine “Rock Center With Brian Williams” and has held top positions at all of the major networks, called him one of the “most meticulous anchors” in the business.
“His insistence on fact-checking approached being a pain in the butt,” Bettag said. “That side of Brian is largely being lost as he faces what I consider to be an appropriate punishment.”
But when Williams was talking about himself outside the confines of his anchor’s desk, he seemed to want to make his experiences more dramatic, colleagues said. He was the biggest news anchor in the country, the undisputed ratings champ, but he often pushed stories to their limit — and sometimes beyond.
“That’s Brian being Brian” became the newsroom shorthand.
“Brian’s not a liar,” said an “NBC Nightly News” journalist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because network management has strongly discouraged staffers from speaking publicly about Williams. “He’s a guy who gets caught up in the story. He’s a great storyteller. But sometimes storytellers embellish. But you don’t embellish about getting hit by an RPG.”
Williams, who toggled between confidence and insecurity, colleagues say, always wanted to put himself at the center of the narrative. As the scandal enveloping Williams has swelled, even some of the basic architecture of the life story he tells has been swept into it.
On late-night comedy shows and in interviews about his background and journalistic exploits, his hyperbolic tendencies went unchecked by the tempering influences of the squadrons of producers and writers in the NBC newsroom. Maury Povich, a television veteran who worked with Williams at WTTG in Washington, said that his former colleague became a regular on comedy shows “to get a bigger audience — to demonstrate there was more to Brian Williams than someone who sits in an anchor chair. I think every anchor wants that.”
Williams spent his early childhood years in Elmira, a city in New York’s Southern Tier near the Pennsylvania border. The family later moved to New Jersey.
As his fame has grown, he played up his “Jersey-ness” and his affinity for the state’s in-your-face vibe. For a 2008 piece in New Jersey Monthly, he reminisced fondly about a train stop in Secaucus, N.J., where he saw “down below in the Meadowlands two guys definitely up to no good. They’re about to take someone or something out of the trunk.
“And I just thought to myself, ‘Man, I love the Garden State.’ ”
When he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame last year, he told the crowd that “I wear New Jersey on me. I carry it with me everywhere.”
In an undated piece on the Web site of the Christian nonprofit group Guideposts, Williams talked about his youth in Elmira and how he was inspired by watching Walter Cronkite on CBS.
After the family moved to New Jersey, Williams went to a Catholic prep school in Middletown, a middle-class burg known for its all-American feel.
Williams attended three colleges and universities, including Catholic University and George Washington University in the District, but he never graduated.
To pay his high school and university tuition, Williams said he worked at a pancake house and a Sears department store. In 2005, he told Esquire magazine that he had saved two puppies while serving as a volunteer firefighter. Six years later, he wrote in USA Today that he had saved one.
“I instinctively tucked it in my coat. When I got outside, I saw two small eyes staring up at me, and I returned the 3-week-old (and very scared) puppy to its grateful owners,” he wrote.
Williams — who reportedly makes $10 million a year as the “NBC Nightly News” anchor — has said his family’s finances were wobbly when he was growing up, particularly after his father, a marketing executive, lost a job.
“My family didn’t have money to have a four-year college experience like you guys,” he told an audience at Elon University during a commencement speech in 2013, the year his son, Douglas, graduated.
In Washington, Williams interned in the Carter White House and clerked at the National Association of Broadcasters. He met the owners of a tiny television station in Pittsburg, Kan., population 18,770, and took a news reporter job there in 1981, making $168 a week. The idea was to move up to a bigger market, but his résumé tape was rejected by numerous medium-market stations, he later said. Williams has since said he was so financially strapped that he was “bankrupt.”
Williams returned to Washington and took a job at WTTG, then a struggling news organization, operating a Chyron machine, which displays the type seen on television screens.
There he caught the attention of Betty Endicott, a pioneering journalist who had become the first female television news director in Washington. In Williams’s telling, which he recalled during a 2012 interview on the Mediabistro show “My First Big Break,” Endicott (who died in 1989) called him into her office and asked him who he thought was the worst reporter at the station. Endicott agreed with Williams’s assessment and gave him that reporter’s job, he said.
“He was a shining light,” said Povich, who was an anchor at the station. “He was young. But he was everything you would want in a young reporter.”
Williams’s career zoomed over the next decade with stops in Philadelphia and New York. By 1987 — six years after struggling to make a living at the tiny Kansas station — he was reporting and anchoring at WCBS-TV in New York, making him a major player in the nation’s largest television market.
“One day out of the blue I got a call from NBC News: ‘Would you meet with Tom Brokaw?’ ” Williams wrote on the Guideposts Web site. “We sat at a small alcove at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, sharing a large bottle of water. And we talked. He wanted me to think of coming to NBC News. At that very first meeting Tom said he was at an age where he was starting to think about a successor. If I came to NBC, I would be considered for that spot.”
Wright, the former NBC chief executive officer, said he saw something special in the young journalist. He was smart, sharp, good-looking and willing to learn. In 1996, after three years with the network, including stints as weekend anchor and White House correspondent, Wright elevated Williams to chair an hour-long show on a new cable network he had launched, MSNBC.
“He was the perfect candidate and he did a wonderful job,” Wright said.
Williams spent the next eight years being groomed as Brokaw’s successor. A sense of inevitability settled in. He was named one of GQ’s “Men of the Year” in 2001.
Three years later, he took over for Brokaw. In the buildup to that big moment, Williams appeared on “The Daily Show.” Host Jon Stewart (who announced his retirement from the show last week) listened as the crowd roared with laughter at a series of Williams’s one-liners.
“Why do I think you’d be better at this job than I am?” the fake anchor told the real anchor to be.
A week earlier, longtime CBS anchor Dan Rather — a seasoned reporter who had covered Watergate and the John F. Kennedy assassination — had announced his retirement following the fallout over a botched story about President George W. Bush’s National Guard record. Nine months later, Peter Jennings, the venerable ABC News anchor, died of lung cancer.
The network news landscape had been fundamentally altered, and Williams found himself in the center of a new order.
In late August 2005, Williams touched down in a chartered jet in Baton Rouge, La.
A Category 5 hurricane was heading toward the state, threatening the vulnerable city of New Orleans.
Williams and his crew spent the night of the storm inside the fetid Louisiana Superdome, a makeshift shelter for thousands of stranded people. In later years, Williams would recall that night often, describing a horrific scene with his trademark blend of emotion and piercing detail.
In June last year, Williams said in a taped interview at Columbia University with Brokaw that “all of us watched as one man committed suicide.”
That account was challenged by an NBC producer who was with Williams in the Superdome that night.
“I didn’t see anyone commit suicide. None of us did,” said the producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of warnings by NBC management about discussing Williams publicly.
Williams’s own reporting at the time contradicts the account as well.
In an MSNBC documentary about Hurricane Katrina, Williams said that while he and his crew were in the Superdome, they “heard” that someone had committed suicide by leaping from an upper deck.
Williams has made several other claims about his time in New Orleans that have been challenged in interviews conducted by The Post: His hotel was “overrun by gangs.” He contracted dysentery. He was desperate for food and water. He saw from his French Quarter hotel room a body floating in floodwaters.
“I was standing inside the truth,” Williams recalled during a 2008 speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. “I was up to my knees in it.”
The credibility of his claims is undercut by the fact that Williams appears to have made no mention of them during his frequent appearances on news programs during the storm or in the daily blog posts he wrote while in New Orleans.
Williams stayed at the Ritz-Carlton hotel situated at the edge of the French Quarter. Myra DeGersdorff, who managed the hotel at the time, said in an interview that “by no means had gangs overrun the hotel.”
DeGersdorff said that the hotel was being used as a “mini command post” by the New Orleans Police Department and that she had marshaled her entire security staff to patrol the hotel and to block stairwell doors with king-size mattresses.
DeGersdorff also questioned Williams’s claim about getting dysentery, noting that the hotel set up bleach stations to prevent contamination and that, by chance, she had a group of infectious disease doctors staying in the hotel who she said would have been alerted if any cases of the disease appeared.
Also, a former top New Orleans health official told the New Orleans Advocate that there were no dysentery outbreaks during the storm.
In Williams’s telling, the pathos of the scene extended to his crew’s access to food. “We were desperate for food and drink. But not like the people we were seeing in the streets,” he said in the documentary “In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina.”
“I remember seeing a box of Slim Jims and thinking, ‘That’s better than any restaurant meal right now. That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” he said.
However, there was abundant food at the Ritz-Carlton, according to DeGersdorff. The hotel was stocked for a fully booked weekend, and it set out buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners each day.
Later, after the NBC crew left the hotel, the network set up a compound with about two dozen RVs and had “food being trucked in from Houston,” said a producer who worked with Williams during the storm.
The claim about the floating body is the most complicated. Much of the French Quarter remained dry because it’s located on high ground near the Mississippi River. The Ritz-Carlton sustained about eight inches of flooding on the ground-floor level, DeGersdorff said. An Associated Press photographer has said he launched a flat-bottomed boat on Canal Street in front of the hotel, and DeGersdorff said that the water on the street was “thigh-high.”
But she added that “there was no way a body could have floated past.” A study of Katrina deaths conducted by the state of Louisiana showed that no bodies were found near the hotel.
“I saw no floating bodies, nor did I receive any reports from my management,” DeGersdorff said.
Leo Watermeier, a French Quarter resident and local activist who walked past the Ritz-Carlton several times back then, also doubts the story about the floating body. Nonetheless, he said he is “inclined to give Brian Williams a pass” for focusing on the area long after many news organizations had lost interest.
“He was a great advocate for the city,” Watermeier said. “It was precisely because he had been there; he had experienced the shock that everybody had experienced.”
With Williams as the face of its coverage, NBC News won a Peabody Award, one of broadcasting’s highest honors. But in the competitive landscape of network news, he couldn’t rest on his laurels. Katie Couric, an NBC star with a huge following, had been lured away from the network’s popular and profitable “Today” show in 2006 to become the anchor of “CBS Evening News.” That left Williams as the unrivaled face of NBC, and it was a role perfectly tailored for him. He had an ability to connect with a younger audience far away from his anchor chair, one that would be more likely to buy luxury cars than boxes of Nexium.
From 2006 to 2011, he appeared about 80 times on programs such as “Late Show With David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show,” “Ellen” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” according to the Internet Movie Database.
At 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, NBC executives cheered the appearances.
In the newsroom, reporters and producers grew increasingly concerned.
“Brian was a hell of a journalist,” said a longtime NBC producer, who no longer works for the network. “But Brian was always pressured by management to be more approachable, show that raconteur side of himself. And when you go on Letterman or Stewart, there are different rules.
“They are looking for good stories, and Brian knows how to tell good stories.”
After one 2006 assignment, Williams provided varying accounts of the dangers he faced while covering Israel’s war with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
In 2007, Williams recalled for a student news outlet at Fairfield University in Connecticut that “there were Katyusha rockets passing just beneath the helicopter I was riding in.”
But Williams never mentioned that rockets had passed beneath his helicopter in a post on an NBC blog in 2006.
During an August 2006 appearance on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” he provided yet another account of what took place.
“Here’s a view of rockets I have never seen, passing underneath us, 1,500 feet beneath us,” Williams told Stewart.
Williams went on nine other talk shows that year. In 2007, he appeared on 23. The year after that, 38.
In 2012, after Superstorm Sandy savaged the Jersey Shore, Williams returned to his roots for an NBC report that aired on his now-defunct “Rock Center” show. On Nov. 1, Williams reported from the front of Hoffman’s ice cream shop in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. It was pitch dark as he peered sadly through the door of the store.
He turned to the camera.
“On top of everything we’ve seen all day,” he declared, “this may be the saddest sight of all.”
The piece was crafted to convey more than dramatic television. It appeared to be personal. Williams assumed the role of the wistful New Jersey native, lamenting the fate of Hoffman’s, a favorite indulgence he and his compatriots had come to know from their childhoods.
“This is where you end up if you’re from this part of the Jersey Shore,” he told his viewers. “Like everybody else, you’ve told yourself all day — even during dinner — you’re going to be strong. Tonight’s the night you’re not going to do it. But you end up here.”
Viewers could have been left with the impression that Hoffman’s had been flooded, battered by high winds, a metaphor for so many losses that had been suffered when the tidal surge swept away people and houses and amusement park rides.
But something was not quite right. Hoffman’s is nearly half a mile from the ocean, and the water never flooded the ice cream shop or any of the businesses in that area of Point Pleasant Beach, neighbors and a shop worker told The Post.
For NBC reporters and producers, these kinds of standups were nothing new. Williams had become adroit at creating drama, putting himself at the center, and connecting with his viewers on an intensely personal level.
Two years after Sandy, during a New York Rangers hockey game, Williams appeared with a soldier who provided security for him and his reporting team in Iraq in 2003. The public address announcer at Madison Square Garden said Williams was in a Chinook helicopter that was “hit and crippled by enemy fire.”
He had been telling the helicopter story for years, going back at least as far as December 2005, when he appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations.
“I guess the combat was three days underway when the helicopter I was flying on was shot at,” he said back then.
He expanded on that version Jan. 30 when he went on “NBC Nightly News” with a report featuring his appearance at the hockey game. He repeated the yarn about being aboard the helicopter that had been hit. But a flight engineer on the helicopter that was struck came forward on Facebook to say Williams was not on the same aircraft.
Williams offered an on-air apology Feb. 4, but it fell flat and incomplete. He was suspended six days later.
Those close to Williams say he feels contrite and is deeply concerned about the damage done to his friends and colleagues and is trying to figure out a way forward.
“It’s a very rough time for him,” said Wright, the former NBC chief executive. “I hope we can all give him a chance to get back on his feet.”
Karen Heller, Paul Farhi, Steven Rich, Emily Chow, Alice Crites, Julie Tate and Gillian Brockell contributed to this report.