There’s something beautiful about speaking clearly, honestly; not only does it have power, but it’s easy to listen to. It makes sense. It’s not a muddle. In 1998, Steve Jobs told Business Week “simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.”
Brian Williams needed to move a mountain this morning. Instead, the mountain of questions surrounding Williams sits right where it was yesterday. Nothing about his two-part interview with Today’s Matt Lauer was simple or clean. Watching Williams answer questions was frustrating, infuriating, and it left a strong aftertaste of a man who still, amazingly, doesn’t get it.
When NBC announced Williams would return to NBC News–but lose his job as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, the network released a short statement from Williams. “I’m sorry. I said things that weren’t true,” it began. To me, that fell flat–it felt formulaic, insincere, #whatevs.
But this morning, I really hoped for more. I wanted to hear the man speak, and explain. I wanted to see him be humble, blunt, and unpolished. I wanted him to convince me.
After a few minutes, I realized I just wanted to move on.
“I have been listening to and watching what amounts to the black box recordings from my career,” Williams said. The black box recordings. That’s the same kind of swaggery talk that got him into trouble–it sounds just like the macho military detail Williams used to tell his tall tale about surviving a helicopter shooting in Iraq. “We were only at a hundred feet doing a hundred forward knots because we had these massive pieces of bridge beneath us on slings.”
Maybe that’s just the way he talks. But even a colorful speaker–and a man whose reputation is very much on the line–should be prepared to answer a direct question. And Williams just couldn’t do it. Asked if he lied, Williams answered “I know people would see it that way.” Well, of course. But why can’t you just answer the question?
“I told the story correctly for years, before I told it incorrectly. I was not trying to mislead people… 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.”
What does any of that even mean? That’s certainly no more clear than Williams’ on-air explanation of the false Iran story he told on Nightly News back in February: “I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area—and the fog of memory over 12 years—made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
Ultimately, Williams was not served well by the Lauer interview. For the second time this week, Lauer has been handed the unenviable job of questioning someone that many Americans have become fascinated by, and want held accountable. And as with Rachel Dolezal, the interview was interesting, irritating and ultimately unsatisfying.
Some have argued Lauer, who was merely the first NBC News talent to talk to Dolezal in a deal that had her sitting for a total of four separate NBC interviews, had reason not to fully deflate her in one sitting. Similarly, NBC, having just decided to keep Williams and assign him a new role as a breaking news anchor at MSNBC, was only going to dwell on the past for so long. This wasn’t about a tearful confession—it was the first step in a rehab effort. NBC’s invested millions of dollars in Brian Williams, and they want to protect his value.
And after all, we were assured by Williams himself that he’s done the hard work of examining himself. He did some serious “tearing apart and unpacking and analyzing,” he said. “What has happened in the past has been identified and torn apart by me and has been fixed and has been dealt with.” Wait. You want me just to take your word for it?
Still, I would’ve preferred an interrogation. Like a suspect in the cop show The Shield, I’d like to see Dolezal and Williams brought into the interview room and questioned. So. You conflated. That’s interesting. Conflated. We’ve got you on tape, Brian. You want me to play it for you? Watch the video, Brian. That’s not conflating, Brian. That’s you lying. Right? You lied. Say it. Tell me you lied. You knew you weren’t in that chopper. You never feared for your life. You made up a story and thought you could get away with it. Right Brian? Say it.
NBC will stretch its Williams interview across many shows, many platforms. He’ll talk less about his lies, and more about his plans at MSNBC. But I think I’ve heard enough.