Brian Williams said the right things – “I own this. I own up to this” – without it ever feeling that he deviated from the script in his obligatory “Today” show interview, paving the way for his return to television.
The former NBC News anchor, who will now be given refuge at MSNBC, appeared to bring a certain level of self-analysis, bordering on therapy, to dissecting why he conflated stories when he left the NBC studios and embarked on his second career as a talkshow guest and cameo actor in NBC sitcoms. So it’s fair to bring some of that to the discussion of his on-air mea culpa, which felt very much like a condition of getting back on the air.
Williams is a gifted TV journalist. But based on this interview it will be a relief when he can stop talking about himself, since introspection is clearly not his forte.
The prevailing takeaway, frankly, is that as charming as Williams can be, beyond the slickly polished surface there’s just not much there. He came closest to identifying the source of the problem when he conceded that he applied “a double standard; I was sloppier” in his statements during appearances on latenight comedy shows, without addressing whether the self-aggrandizing aspects of that were intended to burnish his credentials or just the equivalent of a guy improving a story when he retells it in a bar. (Relatively little has been made of the fact that the precipitating incident to all this, from Williams’ Iraq coverage in 2003, came during the window when he was being publicly groomed to replace Tom Brokaw.)
Williams characterized his misinformation as “a bad urge inside me,” seeming to ignore that it’s a very human impulse, just one that’s inappropriate for the job he held. Nor did he address NBC’s role in encouraging him to promote the newscast by expanding his reach beyond mere journalism to celebrity status, or what the specific ground rules should be in that regard for journalists – or at least him – going forward.
While it’s nitpicking, Williams also rather unfortunately used the term “torture” to describe how he felt being sidelined for the last four months. Given that torture has been very much in the headlines, it couldn’t help but sound like one more act of hyperbole, coming from someone who nearly scuttled a career that pays him millions through a series of unforced errors.
NBC’s Matt Lauer stressed that the interview was conducted with “no conditions or guidelines,” but he seemingly sought to do Williams a favor early on by asking the People magazine-style question, “Personally, what have these five months been like?”
Williams admitted that giving up his “Nightly News” role wasn’t his “first choice,” but stressed that he was grateful for the opportunity for redemption. And while Lauer sought to be fair and detached, that didn’t stop his “Today” colleagues from muttering words of support and encouragement at the end of the segment. “I do believe in second chances,” Lauer said.
It was one of those rare moments in TV news when silence would have been the better option. But then, Brian Williams could tell them all about that.