Part 1—The Post limns Brian Williams: Many lessons could be learned from the mess which surrounds Brian Williams.
Needless to say, the mainstream press corps seems determined to avoid such lessons. Consider one part of the mammoth report in yesterday’s Washington Post.
The report appeared above the fold on the front page of the Sunday Post. Inside the paper, it consumed the entirety of pages A12 and A13.
The report included some spotty reporting about the various inaccurate tales Williams seems to have told down through the years. But right off the bat, we were struck by the Post’s explanation for these inaccurate tales—an explanation which appeared right in the Post’s front-page headlines:
WASHINGTON POST HEADLINES (2/15/15):According to those hard-copy headlines, it was one of Williams’ many “gifts” which led to his recent downfall. It was “his gift for story-telling”—his “love of a good yarn!”
Williams undone by his gift for story-telling/
Anchor’s love of a good yarn played a role in his downfall
Many commenters mocked the Post for this upbeat explanation. Those commenters had a good point.
For ourselves, we were even more struck by the way the body of this mammoth report began.
The lengthy report carried three reporters' bylines. Seven more reporters were listed as having “contributed to the report.”
Manuel Roig-Franzia was the first reporter listed. This is the way he began:
ROIG-FRANZIA (2/15/15): The story of Brian Williams is almost impossible to believe.Was Brian Williams really unable to “find his way out of a small-market dead end” at the start of his career?
And that’s just if you include the parts that are real.
It’s almost impossible to believe that a kid reporter who couldn’t find his way out of a small-market dead end would get his big-market break operating an off-camera graphics machine in a Washington newsroom.
But Williams did.
Did he proceed from there to “get his big-market break operating an off-camera graphics machine in a Washington newsroom?”
In Roig-Franzia's assessment, those store are “almost impossible to believe.” That said, are those stories “real?”
We aren't sure how to answer! That's the way Williams himself has always told those stories. But it’s never been clear to us that those familiar stories really happened in the patented “aw-shucks, woe-is-me” way that Williams has always told them.
Did Williams really wash out of that “dead end” job in the way he has always described? Later in his lengthy report, Roig-Franzia tells the familiar old story in more detail:
ROIG-FRANZIA: In Washington, Williams interned in the Carter White House and clerked at the National Association of Broadcasters. He met the owners of a tiny television station in Pittsburg, Kan., population 18,770, and took a news reporter job there in 1981, making $168 a week. The idea was to move up to a bigger market, but his résumé tape was rejected by numerous medium-market stations, he later said. Williams has since said he was so financially strapped that he was “bankrupt.”That first television job, at age 22, was at KOAM-TV in Pittsburg, Kansas. Moving right along:
Williams returned to Washington and took a job at WTTG, then a struggling news organization, operating a Chyron machine, which displays the type seen on television screens.
There he caught the attention of Betty Endicott, a pioneering journalist who had become the first female television news director in Washington. In Williams’s telling, which he recalled during a 2012 interview on the Mediabistro show “My First Big Break,” Endicott (who died in 2007) called him into her office and asked him who he thought was the worst reporter at the station. Endicott agreed with Williams’s assessment and gave him that reporter’s job, he said.
After one year at that tiny station, was Williams’ audition tape really “rejected by numerous medium-market stations,” as he has always said? Did he return to Washington defeated and even “bankrupt,” as he has always claimed?
We have no idea! You’ll note that Roig-Franzia’s source for these claims is Williams’ own past statements! The same is true of Roig-Franzia’s story about the way Williams got on the air at WTTG, in one of the nation’s most important TV markets.
Did Williams get on the air at WTTG in the colorful way Roig-Franzia describes? We have no idea! According to the hard-copy Post, Betty Endicott died in 2007, so Roig-Franzia had no way to check this colorful story with her as a principal source. And uh-oh:
On-line, the Post report has now been changed to say that Endicott died in 1989! We don’t know which date is correct, or why the date has been changed.
Can we talk? In profiles of Williams, reporters have repeated these stories for years. But the source of these colorful stories has typically been Williams himself. We’ve never seen any sign that anyone ever attempted to fact-check the colorful stories, in which Williams presents himself as an “accidental success” who stumbled unawares into his big break at WTTG.
In at least one of his dramatic tellings, Williams said he actually destroyed his audition tapes as he left Kansas, so sure was he that, after one year, he had failed in his pursuit of a broadcast career. We find that story quite hard to believe—but at one point, Williams told it.
How did Williams get on the air at WTTG? To state the obvious, it doesn’t actually matter. But we were struck by the way Roig-Franiza began yesterday’s front-page report—by taking one of Williams’s “almost impossible to believe” stories and vouching for it as “real.”
Are those colorful stories “real?” We have no idea; nor do we see any sign that Roig-Franiza knows. We hung our heads when the Post began its lengthy report in the way it did, with the latest recitation of one of these unconfirmed stories.
For whatever reason, Brian Williams seems to have told a lot of inaccurate tales through the years. But so what? When the Washington Post presented a ginormous front-page report on this matter, it started out by repeating, and vouching for, one of the tales, and by telling us, in its headline, that Williams was in his current fix because of “his gift for storytelling.”
Some commenters suggested a different headline, in which Williams’ downfall was attributed to “compulsive lying.” We wouldn’t run that headline either. But those headlines, and that opening anecdote, were examples of lessons unlearned.
On balance, that Post report was weak throughout, despite its massive length. But then, a great deal of the Williams coverage has showcased the broken state of our upper-end journalism.
Why has Williams told all these tales? Almost surely, we can give a partial answer:
Rather plainly, Williams has told a lot of tales because the upper-end press has allowed it. We could learn many lessons from this debacle—but, as Roig-Franzia’s report helps us see, we almost surely will not.
Did Brian Williams, at age 23, really fail to “find his way out of a small-market dead end?” Did Betty Endicott give him that quiz, then give him that job?
To all appearances, ten reporters at the Post don’t know the answers to those questions! But right there in those opening grafs, they vouched for those stories as “real.”
That’s one of the ways we got into this mess! Have any lessons been learned?
Tomorrow: Some kinds of misstatements are forbidden. Other misstatements are fine.
Later today: Howard Kurtz tells the KOAM/WTTG story