Brian Williams — or, as he calls himself, the leading spokesman of the “Second Chance Club” — went on the Today show this morning to convey just how sorry he is about his tall tales. The interview took place a day after NBC announced that Williams would not be returning to Nightly News when his suspension ends in August, and that he will instead be banished to MSNBC.
“I said things that were wrong,” he told Matt Lauer, after calling the past few months “torture.” “Looking back, with such clarity now, it is so clear to me, I said things that were wrong. I told stories that were wrong. It wasn’t from a place where I was trying to use my job and title to mislead. I got it wrong. I own this, and I own up this.”
When Lauer asked him about the extent of his exaggerations, Williams was cagey. “One is too much. Any number north of zero is too many. We can’t have it.”
Williams was perfectly happy to delve into the “why” of his fibs — although he never went so far to explicitly call them such. As the Washington Post and New York Daily News noted, the word lie was absent from Williams’s responses.
In the past few months, the former news anchor — who has been doing this work for 22 years — has had an inordinate amount of time to sit watching his old work, and he did not like what he saw.
It had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else,” he said. “I told the story correctly for years, before I told it incorrectly. I was not trying to mislead people, [and] that to me is a huge difference. It came from a bad place. It came from a sloppy choice of words. I told stories that were not true. Over the years, looking back, it is very clear I never intended to. It got mixed up, it got turned around, in my mind. This came from clearly a bad place, a bad urge inside me. This was clearly ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in. That’s what I’ve been tearing apart and unpacking and analyzing.
Williams drew a distinction between how he treated his words during work and out in other public appearances. “It is clear that after work, when I got out of the building, when I got out of that realm, I used a double standard. Something changed, and I was sloppy, and I said things that weren’t true. Looking back, that is plain.”
Last week, Jack Shafer alluded to this problem in a Politico story titled, “How Not to Become Brian Williams.” “There’s an old press cliché,” he wrote, “that the best journalistic stories are told in the bar, but there are reasons for that: (1) No editors are there to vet questionable material; and (2) alcohol. If only Williams had avoided talking about himself, he might still be anchor. If you’re a TV guy and you want to talk about yourself, write a book and have it fact-checked.”
Lauer also asked Williams about his demotion and lower salary — which the New York Times called “the functional equivalent of sending him down to the minors.” He, unsurprisingly wasn’t happy about the decision, and “pushed back at first.”
“Was it my first choice? No. Obviously I wanted to return to my old job.” He conceded that he is “very fortunate to be able to go back to NBC,” and that he is happy for new Nightly News anchor Lester Holt.
He might want to do some journalism warm-ups before he returns to the job. Besides being prone to inaccuracies, when Lauer asked Williams to sum up his story in a headline, he was unable to come up with anything anyone would ever click on: “A Chastened and Grateful Man, Mindful of His Blessings, Mindful of His Mistakes, Returns; Hoping for Forgiveness and Acceptance.”