Part 3—Embellishing with the stars: Did Brian Williams really go broke, at age 22, during his year in Kansas?
Everything’s possible, of course, even if Williams has said it. And sure enough! In Sunday’s Washington Post, the paper was sticking to that familiar old story, despite a shaky source.
Others have amped the story up more. Here’s how the Post chose to tell it:
ROIG-FRANZIA (2/15/15): 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.”Other reporters have added more bathos to this tale. In his 2007 book, Reality Show, Howard Kurtz even described the way Williams’ Dodge Dart “died one day in a cornfield.”
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.
For the record, that Dodge Dart did, or perhaps did not, make the trip to Kansas. Williams has told the story both ways. That said, please take note:
Even in a lengthy report about Williams’ propensity to tell tall tales, the Post repeated his standard Dust Bowl ballad, citing no source other than Williams himself.
Right at the start of the Post’s report, the Post even vouched for this story as “real!” Meanwhile, the paper pimped the pathos a bit, omitting some parts of the story:
Williams’ apparent paying job at the White House was missing from this report. This White House job preceded his job at the NAB.
Also omitted: the fact that Williams returned to a job at the NAB after his year in Kansas.
Did Williams crash and burn in Kansas, returning to Washington beaten and “bankrupt,” feeling he had blown his chance for a broadcast career? Routinely, scribes have written the very sad story that way, taking dictation from Williams.
Could something different be true? Is it possible that Williams went to Kansas with a nest egg from his initial professional jobs at the White House and the NAB? That he planned to gain a year’s experience on the air, then return to the District?
We’d say that’s possible too! But as far as we know, no one has ever tried to fact-check Williams’ sad-sack story about his alleged failure in Kansas. And the Post kept telling this story on Sunday, even in a lengthy report about the way its single source seems to tell tall tales.
You can chalk that up to habit, and to lessons unlearned! At one point in Sunday’s profile, the Post provided an insight into the culture of the upper-end press corps.
How does the upper-end “press corps” do business? In Sunday’s front-page report, the Post became the latest source to report or suggest an intriguing fact—inside NBC News, people knew that Williams was telling tall tales all along.
At NBC, they knew all along! The Post explained it like this:
ROIG-FRANZIA: On camera, Williams was preternaturally gifted, cutting a handsome figure with a serious but easygoing manner. His prominent chin skewed slightly to his left, giving his face a kind of permanent complexity and expressiveness. He could play it straight delivering the news in a rich baritone. He could stick to the facts.According to the Post report, people knew Williams was telling tall tales all along. “That’s Brian being Brian,” folk in the newsroom said.
But when Williams was talking about himself outside the confines of his anchor’s desk, he seemed to want to make his experiences more dramatic, colleagues said. He was the biggest news anchor in the country, the undisputed ratings champ, but he often pushed stories to their limit—and sometimes beyond.
“That’s Brian being Brian” became the newsroom shorthand.
“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...”
Williams’ colleagues knew he was inclined to “embellish!” Later in Sunday’s report, the Post amplified this theme, discussing Williams’ publicity-building guest spots on late-night TV shows:
ROIG-FRANZIA: At 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, NBC executives cheered the appearances.According to Roig-Franiza, “reporters and producers grew increasingly concerned,” presumably because they knew those “good stories” weren’t necessarily true.
In the newsroom, reporters and producers grew increasingly concerned.
“Brian was a hell of a journalist,” said a longtime NBC producer, who no longer works for the network. “But Brian was always pressured by management to be more approachable, show that raconteur side of himself. And when you go on Letterman or Stewart, there are different rules.
“They are looking for good stories, and Brian knows how to tell good stories.”
Did it matter if Williams told tall tales about his personal life? If, for example, he stretched the truth about his dark days in Kansas? (We don’t know if he did.)
Does it matter if he stretched the truth about the puppy, or possibly the puppies, he has said he once saved? About the time he says he was held up at gunpoint while selling Christmas trees?
About the dysentery he did or didn’t contract in New Orleans? About his college-age contact with the Pope? About the sausages he took in the NBC car in hopes of saving his own life?
It wouldn’t hugely matter if Williams told tall tales about such matters. It wouldn’t change the course of world affairs. That said, here’s the problem:
We can point you to tall tales Williams told on the air back in 1999—and these tall tales did matter. Was that just “Brian being Brian” too? Is that why no one complained?
What kind of tall tales are we talking about? We refer to the crazy account he gave of that New York Times op-ed page which he said had savaged Candidate Gore. We refer to the crazy way he described those Gore-Bradley polls.
(Click those links to review our reports from real time.)
In these tall tales, Brian Williams was misreporting a crucial White House campaign. He was also spending an inordinate amount of time complaining about one of the candidates’ deeply disturbing clothes.
Why was Williams doing those things? Why did no one speak up at the time? Those tall tales did matter, a lot. Why did no one complain?
Let us suggest the obvious answer to this question:
Forget about “Brian being Brian.” That was also “NBC News being NBC News” at that point in time. As of 1999, that was also “the mainstream press corps being the mainstream press corps.”
Alas! The mainstream press had adopted a set of narratives concerning Campaign 2000, narratives they very much loved. As of the fall of 1999, they were pushing those standard group narratives very hard. And when NBC News or the mainstream press corps does that, all career players inside the bubble know they mustn’t complain.
That’s what occurred in 1999. Let’s return to the string of tall tales the press corps is now discussing:
According to the Washington Post, people inside NBC News knew all along that Williams was telling tall tales about his career and his personal life. But Williams was a giant star, and everyone chose to defer.
Before the week is done, we’ll examine one particular type of tall tale, the type that brought Williams down. According to several journalists, this is the one type of tale you aren’t allowed to tell.
Within NBC News, you were allowed to tell tall tales about your own life and career. “That’s Brian being Brian,” his colleagues apparently said.
Also this: “Brian’s not a liar.”
After becoming the NBC anchor, Williams had become a giant star—and giant stars are given a great deal of rein within our “press corps.” Tomorrow, a bit of comic relief:
We’ll show you how far one scribe was willing to go to repeat those improbable tales.
Tomorrow: Your sausages or your life!