It was an ego trip. That’s the explanation Brian Williams offered in a Today Show interview the morning after NBC News officially demoted him from Nightly News anchor and allowed him to return to the network after a four-month suspension. “I told stories that were not true,” he said. “I own this.”
Precisely what he’s owning up to is as clear as mud. NBC hasn’t released the results of its internal investigation into Williams’s many misstatements and exaggerations. Williams told Matt Lauer he’s aware of the investigation’s conclusions but wouldn’t provide specifics. “What has happened in the past has been identified and torn apart by me and has been fixed, has been dealt with,” he said.
Williams may think he can now put this behind him but I’m not so sure. Blaming “a sloppy choice of words” and saying he didn’t mean to mislead anyone falls short of the admission he needs to make. He lied, and he did it more than once.
NBC News boss Andrew Lack said Williams deserves a chance to earn back the public’s trust. Fair enough. But why not clear the air before launching him on an apology tour? Let us know exactly what he did so we’ll know what he’s sorry for. Follow the standard set by CBS News in two scandals of its own (Benghazi and Bush) and release the internal report. Heck, follow NBC’s own practice of making investigations public as it did in the Dateline GM truck investigation. Williams may not have been caught fabricating news, but he’s a journalist no matter what program he appears on. As John Hersey wrote, for journalists the “legend on the license” is simple: NONE OF THIS WAS MADE UP. (Emphasis his.)
Finally, what about the public’s trust in NBC? The network’s decision to bring Williams back for less money might have made sense if they’d found him a reduced role that didn’t put him on a news program. Sending him back to MSNBC, which is where he started, makes some sense. But naming him primary anchor for breaking news does not, unless NBC really wants to signal that the truth matters less on its cable outlet than it does on the air.