Vanity Fair has published a lengthy dissection of NBC’s long-troubled news division and its most visible public persona, the disgraced Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. Any remaining faith in reversing NBC’s death spiral, sources tell the journalist Bryan Burrough, appears to be rapidly evaporating. But Burrough’s piece leaves at least one important question hanging: How on earth can Brian Williams ever return to NBC News?
The tale of how Williams embellished his war-reporting adventures over a number of years has already been told in great detail. But what aggravated NBC executives, and inflamed the public’s opinion of the anchor, was how he tried to explain what happened—in a disastrous interview with Stars & Stripes, in an equivocating apology on Facebook, and during a widely criticized Nightly News broadcast. The effect was clear: Williams would not admit he lied—only “made a mistake”—just as the evidence he had repeatedly deceived viewers was growing more and more convincing.
Within NBC, Burrough writes, Williams floated an even more absurd and cowardly explanation (bolding ours) for his prevarications:
“[Williams] couldn't say the words ‘I lied,’” recalls one NBC insider. “We could not force his mouth to form the words ‘I lied.’ He couldn’t explain what had happened. [He said,] ‘Did something happen to [my] head? Maybe I had a brain tumor, or something in my head?’ He just didn’t know. We just didn’t know. We had no clear sense what had happened. We got the best [apology] we could get.”
It remains to be learned what kind of brain tumor compels a person to repeatedly embellish war-reporting stories—and only war-reporting stories. Still, Williams’ external statements stemmed from the very same belief, which was that he was constitutionally incapable of telling a lie. “I spent much of the weekend,” the anchor wrote in one apology, “thinking I’d gone crazy.”
One reason Williams may have considered the possibility of mental insanity is the fact that his NBC colleagues treated his tall tales as harmless exaggerations. One former NBC executive told Burrough, “He likes to sort of tell these grandiose tales. But, can I tell you, in all the years we worked together, it never rose to the point where we said, ‘Oh, there he goes again.’ I just saw it as one of the quirks of his personality.” Williams’ appearances on Jimmy Fallom and David Letterman—expressions of his well-known desire to abandon broadcast journalism for late-night comedy—only suppressed these concerns.
One notable person missing from the Williams fan club, according to Burrough, was Tom Brokaw, Williams’ Nightly News predecessor and internal rival. The older anchor reportedly grated at the younger’s willingness to distort his role in reporting in conflict zones. Yet Brokaw’s resistance clearly failed to alter or influence Williams’ behavior. That NBC higher-ups accommodated the same embellishments for so long—even as eyewitnesses contested his telling of events—suggests that Brokaw’s complaints went unheard, if not outright dismissed. The brand of Brian Williams, concomitant with the brand of NBC News, was simply too profitable.
The announcement of Williams’ six-month suspension in early March included an implied expectation that the anchor would eventually return to his Nightly News desk. But it’s increasingly difficult to see how this is possible. It would be one thing if Williams were returning to a company whose reputation were not in question, or whose basic operations were under control. But neither is the case here. Nor was Williams a peripheral party to the disaster that is NBC and NBC News—he was, and in his momentary exile remains, a central protagonist of the network’s dysfunction. To imagine Williams’ return is to imagine an NBC that refuses, out of caprice or stupidity, to learn from its mistakes.