As told by Howard Kurtz: Did Brian Williams crash and burn, at age 23, in his first TV job?
It doesn’t actually matter. But on the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post, a team of ten reporters repeated this familiar old tale, citing it to an unreliable source—Brian Williams himself.
The story is “almost impossible to believe,” the Post reporters excitedly said. But the story is “real,” they declared.
Aside from the basics, we have no idea how “real” that story is. Did Williams really crash and burn in his year in Kansas? Or had he always planned to return to D.C. after gaining a year of experience out in the Kansas cornfields?
We don’t have the slightest idea, nor have we ever seen any sign that anyone else really knows. Below, you see the way Howard Kurtz told the story in his ludicrous 2007 book, Reality Show.
Kurtz larded the story up, offering barrels of bathos:
KURTZ (page 31): In 1981 [at age 22] William got a job at a tiny station called KOAM in the Kansas town of Pittsburg, near the Missouri border, where he anchored the news and shot and edited his own stories. He worked seven days a week. The station’s general manager, Bill Bengston, found him eager to learn and desperate to get into the business. So desperate, in fact, that when Bengston told him that his name was “too East Coast Catholic” and he would have to change it, Williams, feeling crushed, prepared a speech for his parents. He was too anxious about succeeding to get the joke.Did Williams’ return to D.C. really involve “a huge comedown?” Had he really wanted to move on to Tulsa, a larger market?
The unpaid bills and college loans piled up as Williams labored for meager wages, and when his Dodge Dart died one day in a cornfield, Bengston helped arrange a loan for a Ford Escort. But not even a new set of wheels could get Williams to a bigger market. He sent his audition tape to stations in Tulsa and other midsize cities without a nibble. He had no health insurance and was forced to skip meals. Clearly, he had failed.
Williams packed his dog, Charlie, into a Ryder truck, drove to Washington, moved into a basement apartment, and took a courier’s job at the National Association of Broadcasters, delivering documents in a red station wagon. It was a huge comedown.
We don’t know, and we see no sign that Howard Kurtz knew either. This is the way he told the rest of the tale:
KURTZ (continuing directly): But he kept trying to get his foot in the door, answering a want ad for a weekend job running the Chyron machine—which superimposed headlines and peoples’ names on the screen—at Washington’s WTTG. The pay was sixty bucks a weekend. But his smartass personality caught the eye of the news director, who gave him a tryout as a reporter and then assigned him to cover such issues as airport noise in northern Virginia.Just like that, Williams was on the air in one of the nation's most important markets. He would have been 23 or 24.
Kurtz omitted the slightly peculiar story about the news director asking Williams to name the worst reporter on staff, then giving him that person’s job. Perhaps that story sounded too weird even for Kurtz, who filled his book with thoroughly implausible profiles of Williams.
Did Williams crash and burn in Kansas? Was his return to D. C. really “a huge comedown?” Had he even destroyed his audition reel, convinced that he had blown his one chance at a TV career?
That story seems a bit hard to believe. According to the standard stories, Williams got his job in Kansas through his initial job at the National Association of Broadcasters. He had gone to the NAB after a paying job at the White House.
According to Kurtz, Williams took a lowly job at the NAB upon his return to the District. That could always be true, of course. But below, you see the way these early years were described by Barbara Matusow of the Washingtonian, back before Williams seemingly decided to go with Horatio Alger tales.
Matusow profiled Williams all the way back in 1994. As she described his first few years in D.C., she seemed to be describing a high-achieving high-flier, not the basement-swelling sad sack of the later profiles:
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.Maybe Schanzer was overstating. But according to the standard story, it was Schanzer who introduced Williams to Bengston for the job in Kansas. When his year in the cornfields was done, Williams returned to a job at the NAB, “portraying himself as a messenger who delivered packages to congressional offices.”
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. He likes to downplay the experience, portraying himself as a messenger who delivered packages to congressional offices. But his boss at the NAB, Ken Schanzer, says, “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.”
That’s the way the story was told before Williams went all Alger. Back in 1994, Matusow seemed to be portraying a rapidly ascending high-flier—a guy who went from the White House to a substantial job at the NAB and then on to Kansas for a year of on-air experience at age 22.
Did Williams return from Kansas at age 23, bankrupt, embarrassed and beaten? That’s the way Kurtz agreed to tell it in his book.
For unknown reasons, ten reporters in yesterday’s Washington Post declared, on faith, that this story is “real.” As we’ve long told you, our upper-end “journalism” is all too often narrative all the way down.