Part 2—Narrative shift: Why did Brian Williams drop out of college in 1980, in what may have been his senior year?
As with almost everything else, Williams has told the story in different ways down through the years. Below, you see the initial explanation, as reported by Barbara Matusow in 1994, in an early profile of Williams for The Washingtonian.
Williams was 35 at this time. He had started rising to national prominence as NBC’s congressional correspondent.
Why did Williams drop out of college? Matusow told the world this:
MATUSOW (12/94): [H]e wound up in Washington, enrolling first at Catholic University. then switching to George Washington University because it offered more night classes. By then he had caught the political bug. He got an internship at the Carter White House, which turned into a paying job.That sounded like the story of a fast rise by a highly successful young person. But uh-oh! According to a timeline of Williams' life in Sunday’s Washington Post, here's how he was telling the story as of 2012:
That marked the end of his formal education. “I had this choice to make,” he says. “I called my parents and said, ‘I’m never going get this chance to work the White House again.’ I was having the time of my life, working with Harvard and Yale grads. Me, a mutt from the Jersey shore.”
After Jimmy Carter was defeated in 1980, Williams, just 22, was hired by the political-action committee of the National Association of Broadcasters...
WASHINGTON POST TIMELINE (2/15/15):For the full commencement address, click here. But as you can surely see, those are substantially different stories.
Attends George Washington University's night school program for part of one semester before withdrawing. "It was during a particularly tough stretch and one night I was stressed out, I was running out of money, I was living in a basement apartment at 35th and O streets that flooded on occasion, and the meter was running, and I was running out of cash," Williams said in a 2012 commencement speech at GWU. "And I walked out. Walked out of college for the last time.”
Will the real early Brian Williams please stand up? Over the years, Williams has told this story in two different ways. But that is true of many events in the ever-changing life story of Brian.
Here's why we mention this:
For years, we’ve discussed the role “narrative” plays within our nation’s upper-end pseudo-journalism. The story of Williams’ life and career provides a fascinating case study—a chance to see the way the “press corps” is willing to work from heavily scripted, heavily novelized Standard Group Tales.
They craft such tales about major pols—and about themselves and their colleagues. Routinely, accuracy gets thrown away. It’s narrative all the way down!
In Sunday’s Washington Post, ten reporters contributed to a lengthy profile of Williams’ life and career. At one point, lead reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia actually seemed to cite the way Williams has reinvented basic stories about his personal life.
“As the scandal enveloping Williams has swelled, even some of the basic architecture of the life story he tells has been swept into it,” Roig-Franzia wrote at one point. But he never unpacked that ornate statement, or cited any examples from Williams’ early life story.
Instead, Roig-Franzia started his lengthy report by citing one of Williams’ colorful tales about his early adulthood. Roig-Franzia then vouched for the story as “real” (see yesterday's report).
Right from its opening paragraphs, the Post was buying a suspect tale. Again and again with our mainstream “press,” it’s narrative all the way down!
Will the real early Brian Williams please stand up? Over the years, Williams has painted two vastly different portraits of his early adult years. It’s fascinating to see the way a later narrative supplanted the story Williams originally seemed to tell about those early years. The question of why he dropped out of school is only one part of this syndrome.
What follows is a tale of two narratives. It’s also a picture of the way our “press corps” works.
Uh-oh! An initial narrative seemed to paint Williams as a rather privileged, highly-connected fast riser. This picture emerged from the earliest profiles of Williams, written when he began to develop a national profile as NBC’s congressional correspondent.
In these initial profiles of Williams, a picture of remarkable early career success seemed to emerge. Williams left college at age 21 because he had a paying job at the White House. When Jimmy Carter left the White House, Williams moved to a job at the political action committee of the National Association of Broadcasters.
His boss at the NAB, Ken Schanzer, was quoted saying this: “Although he was only an aide, he helped us raise money, organize nationally, and was a key member in all the discussions charting the direction in which we were going to go. I thought he was enormously mature and politically sophisticated for his years.”
At this point, Williams was just 22.
Through Schanzer, Williams then landed a job at a small Kansas TV station, where he worked for a year as anchor and principal reporter. At age 23, he returned to Washington and to a job at the NAB.
Soon, he was on the air at Washington’s WTTG, a major station in one of the nation’s most important TV markets.
By any standard, that’s a story of rapid success. All those elements come from Matusow’s 1994 profile in The Washingtonian.
But uh-oh! In 1993, Ellen Edwards had profiled Williams for the Washington Post. Her profile added an element of family connection to this picture of rapid success.
In 1985, Williams had married into a highly-connected family. (They're still married today.) This type of information has almost completely disappeared from subsequent profiles of Williams:
EDWARDS (10/18/93): When Williams was at [WTTG], he was asked to substitute for Maury Povich, then host of "Panorama." At 11 a.m. that day, he says, he met a woman named Jane Stoddard; it was her first day producing the talk show. At 4, he swears, he told Smilovitz he was going to marry her, which he did a few months later. That was eight years ago.Williams’ father-in-law, Hudson Stoddard, had been a major figure at New York City PBS. Salant, the long-time head of CBS News, “adopted me as a science project,” Williams unwisely said.
She had grown up in New Canaan, Conn., where the two now live with their two children. And her family was friendly with the Salants, as in Richard Salant, former head of CBS News.
"He adopted me as a science project," says Williams. He grew close to Salant, having occasional talks at his house, and he credits him with building his journalistic foundation. At Salant's memorial service in February, among all the famous-name CBS eulogizers was Williams.
CBS anchor Connie Chung, an admirer and friend, says Williams developed a measured approach because of his exposure to Salant "by osmosis. ... I've always thought he would go right to the top," she says.
Brian Williams was 34 when Edwards’ profile appeared in the Post. He was being paid $2 million per year, Edwards reported.
This Brian Williams was hugely successful; he also seemed to be highly connected. One year later, Matusow reported that Williams and his family were living in “a huge, Italianate stone structure that looks like an ambassador’s residence” while he worked in D.C.
A story of wealth, connection and early success was emerging from these initial profiles. This flew in the face of familiar efforts to brand our network news stars as regular, everyday people, just like you and your Uncle Al.
Perhaps for that reason, that initial narrative gave way to a completely different story—to a narrative in which Williams is routinely presented as a serial sad sack whose massive early success was almost wholly accidental.
The change in narrative can be seen in the two different stories concerning Williams’ exit from college. That said, will the real Brian Williams please stand up? And who is the actual Williams?
That question is hard to answer. But as the years moved along, Williams adopted a story of his life which heavily stressed his alleged everydayness and his accidental success.
Hudson Stoddard and Richard Salant were disappeared. Shopping trips to Target and Price Club took Salant’s honored place. Facile explanations were offered for his various early successes—for that internship at the White House, for that job at the NAB, even for the sad sack route by which he got on the air at WTTG.
“Italianate stone structures” were no longer mentioned. According to Howard Kurtz, the humble working-class fellow was living in the same Connecticut farmhouse where his wife grew up!
(Unmentioned: The farmhouse sits on several acres in the nation’s eighth-wealthiest town.)
On Sunday, the Washington Post almost seemed to warn its readers about this narrative shift. “As the scandal enveloping Williams has swelled, even some of the basic architecture of the life story he tells has been swept into it,” the paper opaquely said.
The Washington Post never quite explained what that warning meant. It gave no examples in which Williams has changed “the basic architecture of the life story he tells.”
Instead, it started with one of Williams’ sad tales about his early years, vouching for it as “real.”
This was a lesson unlearned. At this point, it’s quite unwise to believe any of the colorful tales Williams has told. It’s especially silly to source one of these tales to Williams himself, then vouch for it as “real.”
It’s very silly to function that way. But in our upper-end national “press corps,” it’s quite often narrative all the way down!
Williams has pimped this second narrative hard. His colleagues agreed to repeat it.
Later today: How Williams got to the White House