Cleansed by the fires of public opprobrium, steeled by the penance of painful introspection, Brian Williams is a new man.
At age 56, a better man.
The sacked NBC Nightly News anchor is ready to return to work when his six-month suspension ends in August (this time in a diminished role, as a breaking news and live special events anchor at MSNBC and occasionally on NBC), having internalized all the searing lessons of his serial fibbing about his adventures in journalism.
He understands his crimes. He deserves a second chance.
That, anyway, was the message of his two-part interview with Matt Lauer on Friday morning’s Today show—a riveting piece of performance art (whether heartfelt or hyped up) that will probably be taught in a crisis-communications course at Harvard Business School.
“I believe in second chances,” Lauer pronounced after Part I of the interviewed aired. Al Roker agreed. “Most of America does, and wants him to succeed.”
In a way, it was reassuring that after all the confused and contradictory messaging, to say nothing of unauthorized leaks, emanating from NBC concerning the Williams Affair over the past 4 1/2 months, the Peacock Network proved that it’s still got game.
Introducing Part I in the program’s first hour, Lauer told viewers that his sit-down with his colleague—in what seemed to be a Marriott-style hotel suite with a wrought iron-gated balcony—took place with the understanding that “there would be no conditions or guidelines.”
That, of course, was (as Williams kept repeating in a different context) “not true.” The conditions and guidelines were clear: The executive leadership of Comcast and its subsidiaries, NBC Universal and NBC News, had made the decision to bring their self-injured anchor in from the cold.
Therefore, this could not be an on-camera flogging; it could not even be too rigorous a televised grilling. The only purpose of this exercise was to have Williams acknowledge a certain degree of fault, promise never to do it again, and appear likable, sympathetic, and possibly even believable.
But by no means could he emerge from the encounter as damaged goods. After all, the company needs to meet its fiduciary responsibilities and protect its investment.
“I would say: ‘The chastened and grateful man, mindful of his blessings, mindful of his mistakes, returns—hoping for forgiveness and acceptance,” Williams declaimed in best stentorian anchorman cadence, when Lauer invited him at the end of Part II to write the headline for the occasion.
The two broadcast-news stars sat opposite other, legs crossed, in crisp dark suits, their rep ties knotted tightly to the Adam’s apple. Lauer assumed the role not of accuser, but of concerned friend/therapist/pastor ministering to a sinner; Williams played the humbled atoner, questing for redemption. At one point, a tiny rivulet of perspiration appeared on the back of his neck.
“It came from a bad place. It came from a sloppy choice of words,” Williams told Lauer, trying to explain how he had managed to embellish his journalism experiences repeatedly over the years—that is, until he was caught red-handed telling a tall tale about a helicopter ride on the Jan. 30 installment of the network’s flagship evening-news show. “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.”
Immediately realizing that Williams’s explanation just wouldn’t cut it—what with weasel words like “sloppy,” “mixed up,” and “turned around”—Lauer bore down, telling Williams that “I worry” that the public might think that he’s still trying to excuse his prevarications.
“I see why people would say that. I understand,” Williams said—in no need of further coaching. “This came from a bad place, a bad urge, inside me. This was clearly ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in. That’s what I’ve been tearing apart and unpacking and analyzing… It was to put myself in a better light, to appear better than I was.”
Why would a munificently compensated, widely admired celebrity—a man whose job gave him an all-access pass to the world—feel the need to exaggerate his accomplishments and experiences? What terrible insecurities lurk in his soul? Lauer didn’t ask.
To his credit, however, Lauer did offer Williams the opportunity to account for each of the specific instances uncovered in NBC’s internal investigation of his whoppers—the results of which, by the way, the network apparently has no intention of releasing.
“I would like to take this opportunity to say what has happened in the past has been identified and torn apart by me—and has been fixed, and has been dealt with,” Williams parried, perhaps a bit too cleverly. “And going forward, there are gonna be different rules of the road. I know why people feel the way they do. I get this. I’m responsible for this. I am sorry for what happened here. And I am different as a result. And I expect to be held to a different standard.”
At another point, Williams made a startling admission (and one that was decidedly off-message)—that when he was initially confronted with his lapses, his first impulse was to minimize them.
“It is hard,” he told Lauer about losing the anchor chair. “Was it my first choice? No. Obviously I wanted to return to my old job. I thought we had a great 10-year run… We were on top… I pushed back at first. But enough time has passed.”
What if people just can’t trust him? Lauer asked.
“I’ll work every day for it,” Williams answered with gusto. “I would go door to door if I could.” He invited his detractors to “judge me by as harsh a standard as you wish. Many already have. That’s fair.”
Describing his suspension as “torture,” Williams said he was now in something called “The Second Chance Club.”
“I am fully aware of the second chance I have been given. I don’t intend to squander it,” he told Lauer.
Referring again to The Second Chance Club, Williams couldn’t resist adding: “I’m now its leading spokesman.”
It’s apparently not enough for Brian Williams to be just a mere member of something—even something embarrassing. It was the sort of humblebrag that suggests—unsurprisingly—that even after all the abuse, his anchorman’s ego is alive and well.