If he had stuck to telling stories about others and not himself, NBC anchorman Brian Williams would not be in the mess he is in this week.
Pay attention to the words highlighted in bold.
On March 26, 2003 when Tom Brokaw introduced Williams’ report on Dateline saying, “Our colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call over the skies in Iraq. Brian tell us what you got yourself into.” Williams reported, “In the end, Tom, it did give us a glimpse of the war as few have seen it. We asked the U.S. Army to take us on an air mission with them and they accepted. We knew there was risk involved, we knew we would be flying over Iraq, we discussed it, we weren’t cavalier about it. We took off and that is right about when things started to happen.”
That’s a dozen references to Williams and his NBC News crew in six sentences. A story that might have been about soldiers risking their lives was, from the very beginning, focused on the newsman covering the soldiers.
In the next five minutes and 26 seconds of the news story, Williams used the word “we” 19 times, the word “us” eight times and “our” twice.
That is the foundation of the complaints that some soldiers have raised in this controversy – Williams takes stories about others and makes them reflect a story about himself as a compassionate, brave, worldly and “on the scene” anchor.
That image is the foundation of the recent 10th anniversary promos NBC aired. The advertisement ends with a line, “He’s been there, he’ll be there.”
Williams used first-person phrasing again in 2008 when he blogged on NBC News’ site:
I was with my friend and NBC News Military Analyst Wayne Downing, a retired 4-Star Army General. Wayne and I were riding along as part of an Army mission to deliver bridge components to the Euphrates River, so that the invading forces of the 3rd Infantry could cross the river on their way to Baghdad. We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers with RPG’s and AK-47′s. The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down — for the better (or worse) part of 3 days and 2 nights.
March 23, 2013, Williams told David Letterman, “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK 47.”
Williams delivered this passage in the story about how he took a veteran to a Rangers’ hockey game. Williams said on Nightly News, “The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG. Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”
The feel-good story that followed was as much about Williams being a good guy as it was about a soldier who risked his life serving in Iraq. Madison Square Garden and NBC have refused to answer Poynter’s questions about who pitched the story idea to the Ranger’s public address announcers, who supplied the copy that the announcer read saying Williams had been in a military helicopter that was crippled by gunfire and who told Madison Square Garden that the anchorman would be at the game with a veteran in tow.
Even in retracting the story, Williams couldn’t break his first-person reference addiction. He said, “On this broadcast last week in an effort to honor and thank a veteran who protected me and so many others following a ground-fire incident in the desert during the Iraq War…”.
Nobody would argue Williams’ use of first-person a week ago when he owned the whole stinking mess, “I want to apologize.”
Williams’ other recollections under attack are also first-person references. His memory of watching a man jump to his death in the New Orleans Super Dome after Hurricane Katrina, for example included this passage:
“We watched, all of us watched, as one man committed suicide.”
He also said he personally had seen a body float by his French Quarter hotel. This weekend, the former manager of that hotel where Williams is reported to have stayed said it was not possible.
The problems that Williams faces today largely have to do with what he said about himself, what he experienced, not about others. Television reporters everywhere may be able to relate to this pressure to promote themselves as a franchise, be pithy and visible online and in social media, show some personality on the air, appear to be empathetic and informed and relate what YOU saw, not what others experienced. Williams’ case may just be the poster child for what happens when journalists forget that the story they are covering shouldn’t be about them.
That is not to say that first-person reporting has no place in journalism. In 1887, Nellie Bly, that crusading journalist, had herself admitted to a New York asylum to uncover the deplorable conditions of “Mad-Houses” warehousing the mentally ill. But she has no photos, no video, no audio to prove her story. Nellie’s first-person accounts told readers how she knew what she knew:
“…The insane asylum on Blackwell’s Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. I had intended to have myself committed to the violent wards, the Lodge and Retreat, but when I got the testimony of two sane women and could give it, I decided not to risk my health — and hair — so I did not get violent.”
Similarly, listen to this story from Edward R. Murrow on the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camps in World War II. Murrow describes in first-person the events that transpired. Keep in mind, Murrow was reporting for radio. He had no images to illustrate the story. Murrow must have known his reputation for honesty and accuracy would add to the report.
At 5:36, in Murrow’s reporting he said, “I pray you to believe about what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard. but only part of it. For most of it I have no words.” Murrow didn’t need to use first-person reporting to prove he had credibility. That first-person reporting gave the story credibility, because Murrow had credibility.
First-person reporting is most effective when the reporter has so much credibility that his/her reporting makes a hard-to-believe set of facts more believable. When Murrow said he saw something, there was good reason based on years of credible reporting to believe him. Journalists get in trouble when they use a story to make themselves look bigger at the expense of the people they should be covering.
As Williams begins his self-imposed time off from the anchor desk, it could be useful, if a bit old-fashioned, to look back at how other anchors referred to themselves when they chose to insert themselves in a story. When Walter Cronkite delivered a first-person assessment of America’s future in Vietnam, he avoided saying, “I, me, we” or “our.” And yet, there is no doubt, he is speaking from a place of experience. He used the phrase “this reporter.”
In the weeks ahead, NBC will have to decide whether it will try to rewrite the past or actually right a listing ship. The network leadership might start by watching its own promotions that it ran a couple of months ago on Williams’ 10th anniversary in the anchor chair. The ad was titled, “Trust.”
Disclosure: Brian Williams wrote an endorsement for my book “Aim for the Heart.”