Anchor's Away: Brian Williams's Biggest Sin Was Making Himself the Story

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How much do you need to trust the man reading a teleprompter? Lucas Jackson/Reuters

Brian Williams may have just lucked into the perfect job: On the same day NBC announced it was suspending the Nightly News anchor for claiming to have been aboard a helicopter downed by RPG fire during the Iraq War, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart announced he would be leaving his post. Williams, who has been a frequent guest on the Daily Show, reportedly told NBC five years ago that he was interested in Jay Leno's job as host of the Tonight Show. The idea reportedly alarmed network heads at the time—for god's sake, man, you're a journalist, not a common comedian! But show biz may just be in his blood, He spoofed himself on 30 Rock and can be seen slow-jamming the news with Leno's replacement, Jimmy Fallon.

Then Stewart, who a large swatch of the population trusts, can read the straight news while Williams waxes ironic on Comedy Central. It's a game of musical anchor chairs!

And what is trust, aside from an Elvis Costello album, anyway? How come the smooth-talking, clean-cut Williams had so much of it (he ranked among the 23rd most trusted people in the country, according to The New York Times—until the helicopter story unraveled and his ranking plunged to No. 835) and former Meet the Press host David Gregory never connected (prompting NBC to oust him last year with no warning or fanfare)?

I would assume that part of Williams's charm was that he was…unassuming. He and I corresponded briefly for a period—I was covering the media for Salon when he was hosting an excellent 10 p.m. newscast for MSNBC (this before that network had become the lefty version of Fox News)—and I called him a few times for quotes or background on stories. He struck me as exactly what you see on TV: smart, self-deprecating, funnier than you imagine a news anchor can be or should be. A network publicist I knew called him "Brain" and among those in the business, his rise, as Tom Brokaw prepared his own exit from the NBC Nightly News anchor's chair, seemed preordained.

Williams said just the sorts of things about taking Brokaw's job then that you might imagine—that he was happy doing what he was doing and he hoped Tom would stay as long as he wanted—even as the value of being a news anchor on one of the Big Three was diminishing (along with the value of the Big Three). It's worth remembering that in the U.K. they call people with Williams's job "news readers;" for the most part they don't report, or even produce, the stories they set up. It's their job to convey a summation of the day's events with a straight face and a modicum of gravitas. But the idea of the trusted anchor—Walter Cronkite concluding that the Vietnam War was a losing hand is one of the iconic moments in American TV news history, precisely because his viewers trusted him—is sort of an anomaly. Before there was Ron Burgundy there was the fatuous anchor played by William Hurt in 1987's Broadcast News, and before him it was Ted Baxter on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. For decades now our perception of a news anchor has steadily declined—thanks in part to people like Williams appearing on TV and making fun of themselves, and people like Stewart sending up the whole network news business as crass, simplistic and hopelessly broken.

Now NBC is reportedly grinding through every story Williams told about himself over the years; his memory of events in New Orleans post Katrina has been called into question, even the number of puppies he rescued as a volunteer fireman in his youth. And if they find a clear pattern of "misremembering" and self-aggrandizement, he'll probably be gone for good.

But let's assume the worst has already been revealed: how much do you need to trust the man reading a teleprompter? For 99 percent of his work, Williams was not reporting on himself. And maybe he got some facts wrong about less consequential events. But there is no evidence that he was less than diligent reporting any other story—any story that didn't involve himself. He committed the sin of inventing past peril (think Hillary and the imaginary sniper in Bosnia) and lying about being under fire when you weren't is tantamount to saying you served when you didn't.

The news media, and the nation at large, has a huge disconnect from the military. Whether its guilt about having not put on a uniform or having done such a piss poor job of reporting on the build-up to the Iraq war, a lot of national news people seem hypnotized by camouflage. Williams acted awestruck by some of the "brave men and women of our armed forces" (as they must be called by TV convention) and he crossed the line when he recalled being in danger when he wasn't.

That anxiety didn't exist for the previous generation of newscasters because they had served, if not in uniform then in reporting the truth (or what they could see of it) about earlier wars, most especially World War II. Cronkite covered the Battle of the Bulge from the ground and reported on the Nuremberg Trials after the war; Edward R. Murrow covered Hitler's rise for CBS and transfixed Americans with his coverage of the Blitz in a series called London After Dark. One could argue that the events of '30s and '40s were more earth-shattering (literally) than Vietnam and Woodstock, and opportunities for big stories—like the Holocaust, or McCarthyism, which Murrow helped unmask with his reporting and editorializing—were greater.

Or maybe it's just that those guys never mistook themselves for the story. If they reported from the battle lines it was to give you a sense of what it was like for the soldiers, not the reporter. With the lines blurred by reporting like Williams's (and CNN's Anderson Cooper led the charge in New Orleans, wading about in galoshes long before his counterparts got the memo that the city was broken) they make the mistake of thinking the anchor is part of the story, and we've come to share that delusion.

None of which should keep Brian Williams from being an excellent news reader. Sportscaster Marv Albert was considered dead meat when a sex-scandal in 1997 revealed his taste for BDSM. Could a man who witnesses claimed liked to wear women's lingerie and bite his partners keep calling games for the Knicks? Almost 20 years later the answer is an unqualified "Yesss!"

One difference being that Albert never said he had dunked on Ewing.

Correction: This article originally said the helicopter incident took place in the Gulf War. It was the Iraq War.

Anchor's Away: Brian Williams's Biggest Sin Was Making Himself the Story | Culture