By the time America is celebrating the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree Wednesday night, Brian Williams will have hit the five-year mark as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News.
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From his office in 30 Rock, wearing a collared shirt and cardigan combo that could have been borrowed from a couture line of “My Three Sons” menswear, Williams sets the scene for his celebration plans.
“I’ll do what all NBC employees do (the night of the tree lighting),” he said. “I come back to our offices, turn down polite offers of room-temperature eggnog, and wait until the switch is thrown and join an exodus that looks like the fall of Saigon as we try to exit from this building, stealthily. I take the subway to an undisclosed location in New York. I then surface, and I’m met by a special yellow car with a light up box and that’s how I get home on this night, once a year.”
No town cars, toasts, or staff dinners, just a trip back to his house in Connecticut, where he might not have noticed this anniversary had the media not informed him. He's already thinking about tomorrow.
“Our work is so cyclical and daily,” Williams said. “Tonight when I get off the air — no disrespect to the stories we have just sweated to get on the air and worked hard to edit and hone and get right, and certainly no disrespect to the people who will be risking their lives to report for us — I become all about the next day, starting during my commute home.”
Tell Mr. Brokaw...
The cyclical nature of the job keeps him from thinking in terms of anniversaries, but on this one, it’s impossible not to address how much has changed, and how much hasn’t. The Nov. 25 Nightly News broadcast was watched by more than 10 million households, yet Williams is still mistaken for his predecessors.
“There are humbling devices in life,” he said. “Like the email I got when I got off the air last night, that started, ‘Tell Mr. Brokaw…’ and it was about something I said that night. And that happens routinely. When I’m on the street I usually get two Brokaws and Jennings per week. Routinely. I was out in Phoenix to accept the Cronkite award, pulled up to the Sheraton where the luncheon was, and got a ‘Welcome Mr. Brokaw, and I thought, suddenly, ‘Arizona State University has made a terrible mistake.’”
Despite cases of mistaken identity involving the man behind the desk, Williams himself is well aware of how the anchor position itself has changed.
“I realize that the place in American society of these three broadcasts is not what it was when I took over five years ago,” he said. “It’s not the job Tom (Brokaw) held for 23 years. (That’s) probably an explanation for why I do so many extracurricular electives. As a friend of mine calls them, brand extensions.”
Those “brand extensions” Williams refers to include appearances Brokaw certainly never attempted. Williams has hosted “Saturday Night Live” and also played a fictional version of himself on the NBC comedy “30 Rock.”
The challenge of balancing a sense of humor with being a serious journalist seems to loom large to some, but Williams is certain the difference is painfully obvious.
“I think viewers are very smart, and savvy,” Williams said. “It’s 2009, they know when I’m on ‘30 Rock’ as Nicky Martarulo, I’m not Brian Williams on NBC Nightly News. They know that when Nightly News starts there’s no more serious a recitation of the day’s events that they’re ever going to get. And they know I will sweat blood for them. They know I am just back from Afghanistan. ... I go there because it is crucial in my line of work that while two wars are going on, I see the story.”
Of the many stories Williams has covered in his tenure at “Nightly News,” perhaps the most controversial involved the 2007 decision to air portions of the multimedia manifesto mailed to NBC News by Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman. If Williams had to do it again, he’d do nothing differently.
“We were unanimous,” Williams said. “I would defend every word I wrote for that night’s broadcast in preparing the audience in what we were going to show them, and in showing them a tiny percentage in what I saw in that manifesto. ... I get that it was controversial, to use a hackneyed phrase, however, I stand by it.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a news story he’d take a different approach with, given the chance.
“I can look up all of our reporting in the lead-up to the Iraq war and find fault,” he said. “I don’t think we’re as full of blame as some of my friends on the left would have it. Because there was no such thing as getting in a Land Rover, going out into the desert with a couple of buddies who happen to be weapons inspectors and without escort, seeing if these reports of WMD were true. We were all at the mercy of another source, a secondary source of information.”
“I think I’ve used this phrase before,” he said. “I think the American people gave (President George W. Bush) as they would any president, a certain blank check. If you fail to look at the run-up to the Iraq war in the context of 9-11, I think you’ll fail to understand the issue. I left for work the morning of 9-11 not knowing if I’d see my family that night, not knowing if this was volley number one through five of 20 or 100. ... Take yourself back to that morning and then examine the march to war in Iraq.”
Mapping out the Costco
A good friend of Williams’ says that nothing makes the anchor happier than a box of Oreos and a carton of 2% milk (“I am a dietician’s nightmare,” Williams concedes). Perhaps this everyman attitude helps explain why many viewers find him easy to relate to.
“I can, without any effort, take your reporter’s notebook,” Williams threatens, “and diagram my Costco. Especially the food aisle. Especially the location of the rotisserie chicken, automobile tires, iPods, pens — no fewer than two dozen at a time, thank you very much — vitamins, odd kinds of yak skins that they sell in the middle of our Costco. Snacks, candy, 2,000-size Advil, and Kirkland nuts, along with Kirkland bottled water. I cannot change who I am. Life has changed, I am tremendously overcompensated, I’ve been thrust into a different social class than the one I was born into, but my reflexes and tastes remain back where I was raised on the Jersey shore. Bill Cosby famously said, the first rich kids I ever met were my own, and that’s pretty much my story.”
If Williams’ story has remained the same over his lifetime, ironically, so has the news, at least during his tenure. Given a copy of the front page of the New York Times from Dec. 2, 2004, the day he took over the broadcast, Williams reads off headlines that sound strangely familiar.
He rattles them off: “Wow, ‘U.S. to increase its force in Iraq by nearly 12,000’ … The main art is of supporters of Viktor Yushonchenko, who was photographed in the new New Yorker … ‘Arms Inspectors Said to Seek Access to Iran Sites,’ — they’re still writing about it, it’s still going on.”
If in a broad sense, nothing has changed in news, what is the goal in continuing to present stories in a way people will keep watching? Williams has a surfing metaphor for that.
“When you surf, or in my case, body surf, there’s a point at the absolute ragged crest of the wave, where if you could isolate that little geographic area in time ... it would be silent water,” he said. “And that is really the crest of the wave. Our job is to try to get our board right there. And sometimes it crashes on the beach, and things go terribly wrong. And sometimes we miss the wave, sometimes we miss the entire cycle of waves. And sometimes, on rare occasions we’re ahead of it, or on it,” Williams says.
“I sit here five years into this job very worried about journalism, but sitting on top of an audience that is above where it was last year or the year before. There’s proof that people who like and admire what we do, the way we do it. They like the collection of people that has come to be known as NBC News. So all I can do is try to keep my little slice of that robust, and proficient, try to keep it honest and free of bent or opinion and try to do a competent job. Apply the work ethic that I had when I was a kid, when I wore that,” Williams said as he pointed to the one object that probably best resembles his past and present: the fireman’s helmet he wore as a rookie firefighter at 17. He donned it again for his "Saturday Night Live" appearance, further proof that however far he's come, he's still the same man.
Courtney Hazlett delivers the Scoop Monday through Friday on msnbc.com. Follow Scoop on Twitter @courtneyatmsnbc