Part 3—Brian’s ugliest song: Early this morning, we were struck by a comment to a piece at Salon.
Brian Williams had been suspended—without pay!—by NBC News. A commenter offered these thoughts:
COMMENTER AT SALON (2/11/15): I consider myself to be a reasonably well-informed, news-knowledgeable person, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have watched even part of an evening network news broadcast this century. And I am squarely in the middle of their 55+ target audience demographic. I don't know of anyone else who watches these news programs either. They might as well be 3 AM infomercials. Brian Williams seems like a decent guy, and I've enjoyed watching him in other venues. But Edward R. Murrow or I.F. Stone he ain't. Still, getting paid $10 million a year to look good in a suit and read the news should also buy at least a respectable level of trustworthiness.Is Brian Williams “a decent guy?” We have no idea.
To us, Williams seems somewhat weirdly inclined to make up extremely strange stories. These stories aren’t simply inaccurate, embellished or self-promoting. His various tales of danger and suffering seem a bit strange to us.
To us, Williams also seems like a highly ambitious person, perhaps a bit self-absorbed. Along those lines, we were struck by one part of a front-page report in today’s New York Times.
This passage comes from our hard-copy Times, Emily Steel reporting:
STEEL (2/11/15): [Williams’] affinity for entertainment may have played a part in his current troubles. About five years ago, as NBC was contemplating who would eventually replace Jay Leno as host of “The Tonight Show,” a surprise candidate raised his hand: Brian Williams.Did Williams actually want to replace Jay Leno? The claim is now being widely reported. We don’t know if it’s accurate.
Mr. Williams told top NBC executives that he was keen to pursue his ambitions in entertainment and comedy. They called the idea ridiculous, telling him that he was a journalist, not a comedian, and to stick to the news department, according to two industry executives with knowledge of the discussions.
That said, the humor in the Steel report comes in the highlighted passage. Top execs were forced to tell Williams that he is a journalist!
Is Brian Williams a decent guy? And has he really been a journalist? The answer to that second question isn’t entirely clear.
It’s rather clear from Williams’ history that he always sought the golden ring—the vast fame and enormous wealth that come to those who reach the very top of TV’s corporate pig-pile.
He did become enormously wealthy, despite his carefully-crafted attempts to make consumers think of him as a Nascar-loving former fireman who does his shopping at Target.
(For links to past work on these story-lines, see below.)
These endless stories have sometimes seemed to take Williams to the edge. His tales about his humble ways have sometimes seemed to involve the kinds of dissembling found in his tales about Iraq and Katrina.
Williams has always told us tales about his vast everydayness. In the process, he got enormously wealthy. This aspect of his career will go almost wholly undiscussed as other vastly overpaid pundits pretend to discuss what's occurred.
Is Brian Williams “a decent guy?” In his various tales about shopping at Costco, Williams has worked hard, for many years, to give us rubes that impression.
At Salon, one commenter has bought this impression, even though he doesn’t think much of Williams’ journalism. We’d advise him to be more careful when he makes such judgments.
We don’t really believe in “bad people” around here. But if we did, we’d be very angry with the big handsome multimillionaire who went on the air, back in the day, and helped us end up in Iraq.
Let’s be clear! In 1999 and 2000, Williams didn’t play a leading role in sending George Bush to the White House. From 2001 through 2003, he didn’t play a leading role in getting us into Iraq.
During those years, Williams wasn’t especially influential. Tom Brokaw still sat in NBC’s anchor chair. Williams, the anchor-in-waiting, was forced to bide his time on a little-watched nightly cable show, The News with Brian Williams.
People didn’t watch that show much. The program wasn’t influential. (By way of contrast, the Hardball of that era was.)
That said, Williams was on the air each night, awaiting that last big score. To the commenter at Salon who sees him as “a decent guy,” we want to recall what that other commenter said, the one who responded to Maureen Dowd’s Sunday column.
This is what that reader said as she recalled Williams’ work from that era. In 2002, she reached a very negative judgment about this decent guy:
COMMENTER FROM NEW YORK (2/8/15): I used to watch The News with Brian Williams which was broadcast on MSNBC and CNBC at 9 PM Monday-Friday before he got his Nightly News gig. I was a working parent and that was the only time I could catch up on the news.In yesterday's report, we showed you what Williams actually said on that memorable night. Early and often, he asked if Gore’s speech the previous day had been “un-American.”
I stopped watching during the run up to the war in Iraq. Al Gore had given a speech that day against a US invasion in Iraq. In his run up to his lede on the speech, Williams acted like Gore was an insignificant politician who had the gall to disagree with the Bush/Cheney propaganda machine's meme that the US needed to rush to war with Iraq. He wondered aloud what Rush Limbaugh would think of Gore's overreach. As far as Williams was concerned, Limbaugh was the statesman and Gore was the nut job. It was instantly clear to me Williams was the worst kind of journalist, one who embraced popular opinion, not a search for the truth.
I never watched that show again. I've never watched NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, either. I would be happy to see him go.
He fawned all over “our friend, Rush Limbaugh,” much as that commenter said. But then, if memory serves, this decent guy was fawning to Limbaugh quite a bit during that era.
We don’t believe in bad people here. But we wouldn’t stampede off to call Williams a decent guy.
Why do we say that? Let us challenge Dowd’s commenter on one important point.
Dowd’s commenter saw Williams fawning to Rush that night. She saw him dropping his “un-American” bomb, although she may not recall that.
She drew a conclusion about Williams’ motive. We’ll guess that she might have been wrong.
As Dowd’s commenter watched Williams that night, she thought she was watching “the worst kind of journalist, one who embraced popular opinion, not a search for the truth.”
She thought that explained why Brian was fawning to Rush. Let us suggest the possibility that this assumption was wrong.
If Williams had a motive that night—if he wasn’t simply doing his best—we’ll suggest that he may not have been chasing “public opinion.” We’ll suggest he was pushing the company line, a line that had clearly come into existence at NBC News and its cable arms during the Jack Welch years.
By 2002, Welch was no longer the corporate owner of NBC News. But Williams was still pushing that same old line.
Some part of this corporate line may have come from marketing concerns—from NBC's desire to attract conservative viewers. This corporate line may also have stemmed from Welch’s conservative politics.
But whatever the source of the corporate line, the line was quite clear at NBC News during the twenty months of Campaign 2000, when Welch’s Lost Boys worked very hard to send George Bush to the White House.
Williams played those games during Campaign 2000, when few people were watching his program. To appearances, he continued to push the company line this night in 2002 as he dropped his “un-American” bombs on Gore and pandered hard to “our friend, Rush Limbaugh.”
Is Brian Williams “a decent guy?” It’s easy to get that impression, in part because he has worked very hard to spread that impression around.
He may well be a decent guy in his personal dealings. We have no way to judge.
But Williams got in trouble last week because of self-glorying claims about an experience in Iraq. But how did we get to Iraq in the first place? Why was he even there?
In part, Brian Williams was in Iraq because chasers of Mammon had pimped the corporate line, exactly at this “decent guy” did on the night in question. Exactly as he and his NBC colleagues had done during the twenty-month War Against Gore.
What are Williams’ personal politics? We have no idea.
Who did he vote for in recent elections? Forced to guess, we’d guess he voted for Bush in 2000, for Obama in 2008.
We doubt that Williams is a consistent “conservative.” But he played one on TV in the Welch years, then in the run to Iraq.
After Iraq became a debacle, upper-end press corps politics began switching back on the war. Before that, Williams made the only smart play for a man who was still seeking those multimillions.
In the end, Brian got those multimillions. He never bought a home on Nantucket, the better to commune with Welch from. But in 2005, this report about Manhattan cribbage appeared at Forbes.com.
Brian’s new boss had bought a fine crib. Williams himself was already present, along with—who else?—Jack Welch!
FORBES (9/9/05): The CEO of General Electric has purchased a luxurious new condo in midtown Manhattan, Forbes.com has learned.Immelt could afford both cribs? Having fawned to his friend Rush Limbaugh, Williams was now bringing in two times Immelt’s haul!
According to public records, Jeffrey Immelt, chief executive and chairman of the company, and his wife, Andrea, this summer bought an apartment in the newly constructed One Beacon Court. The final price? Just over $4 million.
The glass-and-steel high-rise is situated on East 58th St., between Lexington and Third avenues, above the Bloomberg Tower. For the high price, Immelt has bought some high-profile neighbors–including some he might know from the office. Jack Welch, former chief executive of GE, paid about $6.4 million for his Beacon Court spread, just a few floors above Immelt’s. Brian Williams, news anchor at General Electric-owned NBC, also lives in the building.
Immelt, 49, does have a house in wealthy New Canaan, Conn., not too far from GE headquarters in Fairfield. And he can certainly afford both–in 2004 his bonus came to $5.3 million, on top of his $3 million salary.
He owned a house in wealthy New Canaan too, handed down from the influential in-laws which must never be discussed in profiles of Williams. Now, he also shared a Manhattan address with Immelt and with Welch.
These are the sorts of facts people like Williams work quite hard to suppress. Obedient members of the guild will generally keep such facts undiscussed. This leads us rubes to believe the relentless cons about Brian’s vast everydayness.
Can we talk? Brian Williams was in Iraq because his employers worked quite hard to get us there. That’s how we found our way into Iraq—with people like Williams and Matthews pimping the glories of Candidate Bush, then calling Gore “un-American.”
We’ve warned you and warned you and warned you again—disaster lurks when “journalists” are handed multimillions by corporate owners like Welch. This syndrome affects our “liberal” journalists too, including those we may be most inclined to love, respect and trust.
We’ll discuss that problem before the week’s end; your lizard brain will insist that we’re wrong. But we don’t think that Williams is an obvious “decent guy” in the way he approaches the world.
We think he scratched his way to the top. Along the way, we’ll guess that he was often less than obsessively honest, and not just about those RPGs in Iraq.
People are dead all over the world because so many chasers of “press corps” Mammon sang these particular songs. On the brighter side, Williams is very wealthy today. People say he’s a decent guy.
Brian is very wealthy today. People are dead all over the world, but it all turned out well in the end!
Tomorrow: Ongoing points of concern
When Howard Kurtz sang Brian’s songs: Back in 2007, Howard Kurtz sang Brian’s various songs in his book, Reality Show.
By then, Williams was very important. Perhaps for that reason, Kurtz broke his back to tell Brian’s story in the way Brian likes it told.
In December 2007, we did a three-part Special Report about Kurtz’s ridiculous fluffing of Williams. For links to all three parts, click here.
For something resembling a fourth part to the series, you can just click this. Regarding that final report:
Brian Williams unveiled some “Gallatin chic” that day. For once in their lives, Tim and Chris had found their own alleged everydayness topped!