Part 4—Even Brian can’t lie about war: Was Pope John Paul II lucky enough to bless the young Brian Williams?
In last Sunday’s front-page report, the Washington Post included a rundown of Williams’ shifting stories about the Pope’s 1979 visit to Catholic University, where Williams was a student.
In its hard-copy editions, the Post provided this account of Williams’ shifting stories. On line, the material can all be found here:
A PAPAL VISITWhen he first told this story (in 2002), Williams didn’t mention actually meeting the Pope at all. As the years went by, his story expanded and deepened.
Oct. 7, 1979: Pope John Paul II visits Catholic University
May 15, 2004: Williams tells graduates of Catholic University in a commencement speech that he recalls shaking Pope John Paul II's hand in front of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
April 6, 2005: After Pope John Paul II's death, Williams says in an NBC Q&A that he "chatted up a Secret Service agent" who told Williams where the Pope would be during his visit to Catholic University. Williams said he used that knowledge to position himself for a handshake, which led to the Pope blessing him.
Jan. 29, 2007: Williams tells Esquire that he met Pope John Paul II at Catholic University by positioning himself where he "just figured that's where [the Pope would] be stopping." He continues: "For me, it's like some force intervenes. Go forward. Meet that person. To this day, that force guides me. It's an emotional intelligence."
A handshake appeared, then became a papal blessing. Eventually, Williams marveled at the “emotional intelligence” he himself puts on display in creating such magical moments.
Is Brian Williams “a little bit nutty?” The weirdness of his many stories suggests that possibility. Apparently, though, these peculiar stories were A-OK at NBC News. The Post says these stories were written off as “Brian being Brian.”
According to the Post report, Williams’ colleagues knew that he tended to tell tall tales, but no one ever stopped him. Why didn’t the rest of the mainstream press corps ever speak up?
Why didn’t the press corps speak? For starters, consider the reporting skills the Post displayed in another part of its report.
In the following passage, the Post discusses Williams’ claims about his desperate search for food during Hurricane Katrina. Ten reporters worked on this Post’s report. Their performance here is weak:
ROIG-FRANZIA (2/15/15): 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.”That passage makes it sound like Williams always had plenty of food. That said, the Post’s chronology seems to be weak and uncertain.
“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 [hotel manager Myra] 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.
DeGersdorff seems to be talking about the weekend before the storm, which hit on a Sunday night/Monday morning. We aren’t told if the Ritz-Carlton had adequate food after that.
We also aren’t told when NBC News left the Ritz-Carlton. Let’s assume that producer is right—that food was trucked in from Houston at some point.
Might there still have been some days when Williams faced a shortage of food? Despite the efforts of ten reporters, the chronology is unclear.
The skills displayed by our mainstream press are often less than impressive. This problem is put on display at the very start of the Post report, when the Post repeats one of Williams’ oldest tales, then vouches for the story as “real” in the absence of any real evidence.
Other basic problems appear in other parts of the Post report. And the Post completely skipped some apparent whoppers by Williams, most strikingly his peculiar claims about ridin’ with Seal Team Six and then receiving their gratitude and their gifts.
The Washington Post’s skill level was less than perfect here. That said, it’s the moral laziness of the press which most stands out in this remarkable tale. Let’s consider a striking part of the Post report, where we learn about the one type of misstatement a newsman, even a famous newsman, isn’t allowed to make.
Williams had told a lot of tall tales down through the years:
He had told tall tales about himself, many of which were highly peculiar.
Earlier on, during Campaign 2000, he had offered a wide array of bizarre reports about the loathsome Candidate Gore. In fairness, the entire “press corps” was playing that game, so his conduct didn’t stand out.
Within the mainstream press corps, it was A-OK when Williams “embellished” about the vile Candidate Gore. It was A-OK when he and Russert staged history’s strangest presidential debate in October 2007, directing a remarkable tandem assault at Candidate Clinton.
It was fine when Williams “embellished,” often crazily, about his own life and career.
That said, there was one type of lie even Williams wasn’t permitted tell. In this passage, an unnamed “NBC journalist” defines that one type of misstatement:
ROIG-FRANZIA: “That’s Brian being Brian” became the newsroom shorthand.You can embellish about a White House campaign. You can talk ridiculous smack about a major candidate.
“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.”
You can embellish about the Pope. You can tell a crazy story about Vienna sausages.
You can embellish about your own life and career just as much as you want. But according to this NBC colleague, you simply aren’t allowed to embellish about events in a war zone!
It’s the one lie a newsman can’t tell! The late David Carr described the same disgraceful ethical standard in this, his final column for the New York Times:
CARR (2/9/15): [I]f you are going to tell a war story that sprints past the truth, it best not be about war. Those of us who worked the Hurricane Katrina coverage rolled our eyes at some of the stories Mr. Williams told of the mayhem there, but it was a dark, confusing place and a lot of bad stuff happened, so who were we to judge? But armed service and its perils are seen as sacred and must not be trifled with. The soldiers who ended up in harm’s way and survived that day are calling him out because their moral code requires it.In that remarkable passage, Carr seemed to say what the Post later seemed to say:
Many people inside the press corps knew that Williams was telling tall tales. He just couldn’t lie about war, David Carr seemed to say.
We’ll say this for Carr and for that NBC journalist—they were describing the world of the press corps as it really exists.
Williams and major NBC colleagues dissembled, embellished and misstated at will all through the years which led to that war. In Williams’ case, they endlessly broadcast absurd complaints about one candidate’s clothes.
But once they got us into that war, their guild’s one ethical rule obtained—a journalist isn’t allowed to lie in a way which steals the glory of war. When Brian Williams was seen to do that, his house of cards came down.
On this basis, these hideous people proceed along with our “national discourse.” That discourse is almost wholly faux. It tends to be narrative all the way down.
There’s little they say that’s actually true. Williams, who seems to be basically nuts, finally broke their one rule.