Does Brian Williams think he lied? And does it matter?
His previously taped, firm-but-friendly Friday morning “Today” interview with Matt Lauer in part turned on a differentiation that some might see as revealing.
When asked if he realized he was lying while telling viewers his Iraq helicopter story, he responded, “Looking back it had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else.”
There was a reflex to “put myself closer to the action,” even though he’d been amid the same action all along.
He indicated that he’d told the same tale correctly for years “before I told it incorrectly.”
Predictably, Lauer asked about the possibility that some set of viewers won’t believe he’s totally fessed up.
“I see why people would say that,” he said. “I understand it. This came from a bad place, a bad urge inside me. This was clearly ego driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in. That’s what I have been tearing apart and unpacking and analyzing.”
But, as far as not coming out and saying outright that he “lied,” Williams indicated, “It’s not what happened. What happened is a result of a host of other sins. My ego getting the better of me. To put myself in a better light, to appear better than I was.”
“The distinction he’s trying to make between not telling true stories and lying is a bit painful to read,” said Jeff Seglin, an ethicist and public policy expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
“Based on this lack of acknowledgment that a lie is a lie, it seems like he might have a way to go in accepting full responsibility and acknowledging what he did.”
I’m a friend and hope his return is successful and that he comes to terms with the mess. The pressure will be intense and, no doubt, there will be folks hoping he stumbles, including some pretty self-righteous professional colleagues.
Imagine going to work and knowing that some people will be looking for you to screw up.
For sure, it’s a self-inflicted spotlight in his case. But it also will play out in a universe unknown to most of us; a world of daily ratings of your previous night’s performance, hobnobbing with the famous, jetting about the world, being treated like a celebrity and feeling the need to top tough competitors in being both authoritative and alluring to millions of Americans.
The outrage generated so far may be disproportionate to the underlying misdeeds. Indeed, the air of solemnity on the “Today” set when the interview ended, and Lauer spoke on-air to weatherman Al Roker and other colleagues, suggested something closer to armed robbery than rhetorical fabrications.
It reminded me of Edward Bennett Williams (no relation), who was a legendary Washington trial attorney, talking about Washington loving to regularly burn a witch.
It’s true, too, with many of us in journalism, aided and abetted by social media.
It’s why we might give Brian Williams the opportunity to prove he can be a winning member of what he termed “The Second Chance Club.” There are precious few ethically unblemished parish priests among us.