Brian Williams was served a big portion of humble pie Friday morning.
Still, I’m guessing some viewers watching the former anchor of “NBC Nightly News” came away from his interview with Matt Lauer on “Today” wishing Williams’ had eaten a bigger slice.
The 10 minutes or so in the two segments in which Lauer asked the tough questions surely weren’t as painful to watch for Williams’ fans as they were for the anchor to answer.
But it might have been close.
Looking somewhat tired and much more than five months older than he was when he was suspended in February for exaggerating his role in a news story, Williams “owned” the circumstances that has led to him losing his “Nightly News” post and trying to rehabilitate himself in a lesser job at MSNBC.
Williams’ performance – and it was a performance – a day after NBC announced he would return to work at its cable news network was a credit to his public relations staff, his therapist – or both.
To his credit, Lauer asked some tough questions in an interview that couldn’t have been easy for a colleague to do.
Williams acknowledged that his ego got in the way and contributed to his exaggerations of news stories, most of which he said came when he left the anchor seat and visited talk shows, spoke to students and did other things away from the desk.
He added that in his period of self-discovery he ended up “not liking the person I was reading about” in the stories since his suspension.
At one point, Lauer pressed Williams on whether he knew he was telling a story that was not true when he described an attack on a helicopter he was riding in 2011 in Iraq. That story led to his suspension.
“No,” said Williams. “It came from a bad place … from a sloppy choice of words … It was very clear that I never intended it. It got twisted up, turned around in my mind.”
I’m not going to lie. I found it to be a plausible explanation. People outside the news business often exaggerate their experiences. Journalists are – and should be – held to a higher standard.
At another point, Lauer asked Williams for specifics on other exaggerations. Williams declined, which might have disappointed those who wanted a last pound of flesh. That might have been asking for too much.
Speaking of flesh, Williams might have had the worst makeup job since Richard M. Nixon in the 1960 presidential debate with future President John F. Kennedy. Sweat was streaming down the left side of his face as Lauer asked him to write the headline for his story.
“A chastened and grateful man, mindful of his blessings and mindful of his mistakes, returns, hoping for forgiveness and acceptance,” said Williams.
Williams’ summary was almost perfect.
Earlier, he talked about being a believer in second chances and now becoming the leader of the Second Chance Club.
It won’t be easy to win all news viewers back. You just have to read the negative reaction Thursday on Twitter and other social media to the announcement of Williams’ return to see how hard a road he may have as he tries to get back the most important thing for any journalist – trust.
However, Nixon eventually used his second chance to win the presidency (and then lost the nation’s trust and resigned) so you never know about these things.
I would imagine that NBC did some sort of research before deciding to keep Williams. It might have been favorable to the news anchor. But it is hard to imagine that Williams could rehabilitate himself to the point of ever getting his seat back from Lester Holt.
Williams smartly praised Holt for taking over his seat “under the worst circumstances.”
Holt, who becomes the first African-American to be named anchor of a weekday evening newscast by himself, has managed to keep the “Nightly News” very competitive in the network news race nationally for five months.
Locally, he has been a qualified hit. His newscast was a strong No. 1 in household ratings in Buffalo during the May sweeps. However, “Nightly News” saw a significant decline in viewers age 25-54 demographic from a year ago when Williams was the anchor.
If NBC’s share of the national news pie goes down over the next two years or so and Williams rehabilitates himself at MSNBC, can Williams get his old seat back?
It would appear to be a very long shot. Viewers are much more likely to forgive than forget what Williams has done even if they still like him more than he likes himself.
Still, much stranger things have happened in the national television business.