Brian Williams

The Almost Apology

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Former TV news anchor Brian Williams tripped over his own mea culpa, proving that good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as a truly effective apology.

Brian Williams has done soul-searching, but still hasn't found the voice to spit out his apology and explanation.

Williams, the almost beloved former anchor of the NBC Nightly News, will return to the airwaves, but in a lesser role on a cable affiliate of NBC's. It's a demotion, but still a job. All the more reason, Williams should just be plainspoken about why he inflated stories that he covered.

His interview with an obviously sympathetic Matt Lauer on the Today show wasn't crisp, even after more than four months to prepare for it. Williams said his exaggeration of facts or circumstances "came from a bad place' it came from a sloppy choice of words."

Placing yourself in a helicopter involved in a frontline firefight when you weren't at the frontline is something other than a "sloppy choice of words." It is an invented reality.

With some nudging by Lauer, Williams wound up admitting his inflations were "clear ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in." Telling tall tales is what fishermen do, not news anchors.

It would have been far better for Williams to say, "Look, there was no excuse for inflating my role in some stories. I let me ego get in front of my judgment. I was wrong then. I was wrong later when I repeated my untruths. I was definitely wrong for not owning what I did."

Now that is an apology that someone with Williams' style and eloquence could make. It is shame he didn't.

Williams did recognize he will be scrutinized carefully going forward, and he appeared to welcome that scurrility. “And going forward, there are gonna be different rules of the road. I know why people feel the way they do. I get this. I’m responsible for this. I am sorry for what happened here. And I am different as a result. I expect to be held to a different standard.”

Meaning no disrespect to Lester Holt who is expected to replace Williams as the nightly news anchor, Williams is really good as a news broadcaster. Listening to him is like listening to a good friend explain to you what happened during the day. 

Williams' good body of work and his talent entitle him to membership in "The Second Chance Club." But his failure to spit out a solid apology and explanation don't qualify him to be, as he suggested, the club's leading spokesman. Instead, Williams is a symbol of how hard it is to apologize convincingly, even when you have been caught red-handed and concede you are wrong.

Good intentions and sincere regrets aren't the same as an effective apology. People who need to apologize should keep that in mind.

Build Trust, Don't Dig a Deeper Hole

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

Brian Williams and John Kitzhaber followed a crisis response path that dug their holes deeper instead of rebuilding trust through a full admission.

As recent crises of integrity have revealed, an explanation or apology that falls short of a full admission usually is a spark rather than a fire extinguisher.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams' incomplete apology and Governor John Kitzhaber's incoherent explanation fueled a controversy, not quelled it. The apology and the explanation became part of the controversy, not part of the solution.

It is always easy to second-guess decisions or lack of decisions. But here are some tried-and-true crisis counsel maxims that would have been useful for Williams and Kitzhaber to consider:

1. Believe a crisis can happen to you.

No one is invincible. No one is immune from crisis. The loftier your position, the more likely you are to face a crisis.

2. Recognize when a crisis starts.

A crisis doesn't begin when the first reporter calls with a question. It starts when you realize something has gone wrong, or that you have done something wrong. The crisis Williams faces started in 2003 when he misreported the incident in Iraq. The crisis that felled Kitzhaber began when he failed to separate his work sufficiently from the work of his fiancé.

3. Own your misstep.

Blaming a faulty memory or shifting responsibility inevitably come across to the public as evasive or even big fat fibs. They don't demonstrate the person at the center of a crisis is owning the situation, taking steps to find out what went wrong and making it sure it doesn't happen again. Owning a situation isn't the equivalent of a Get Out Jail Free card, but it is the first step to maintaining or regaining shaken confidence. It signals you are taking the matter seriously and doing something about it.

4. Provide a clear resolution.

Trust comes from actions, not words. What you say can and will be analyzed. What you do can be seen and assessed. That's a huge difference. It undoubtedly would have been painful for Williams to admit he embellished his reporting and for Kitzhaber to admit he turned a blind eye to potential or actual conflicts of interest. But that pain of the moment would have been far less painful that the longer term damage each is facing because they didn't deal with the fundamental problem at the heart of their respective crises.

5. Balance your liability against the value of your reputation.

Many full admissions are thwarted out of fear of increasing liability in a courtroom. Too often these fears overwhelm the price paid in the court of public opinion when public figures fail to come clean. Their careers are at stake, which may exact a greater price than a fine or even a jail sentence. Legal maneuvering has its place, but sometimes it has the aura of guilt looking for a way out. If you know you have stepped over the line, you are going to be admitting it someday, somewhere — why not make it here and now? If you know the truth, tell it.

6. Anticipate what could go awry.

We chastise children for failing to consider the consequences of their actions. We shouldn't expect less of adults. Williams surely knew, especially since there were witnesses, that his puffed up account of the Iraq helicopter downing would eventually come to light. Kitzhaber is an astute political animal who certainly could foretell the results of a murky personal and professional relationship with the love of his life. In the end, both surrendered their trust because they looked away instead of into the mirror of their own actions.

Sermonizing about Williams and Kitzhaber is less useful than a Sunday School lesson about where crisis starts, how it ignites and how it can be halted. The stories of Williams and Kitzhaber are cautionary tales, much like biblical parables. They point out the way to oblivion, as well as the road to redemption. 

When an Apology Isn’t Enough

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams is one of the most respected figures in broadcast journalism, but his apology without a full admission may not be enough to retain that credibility.

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams is one of the most respected figures in broadcast journalism, but his apology without a full admission may not be enough to retain that credibility.

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams delivered an on-air apology this week for telling a false war story involving a 2003 incident in Iraq. While the apology was well done, it may not be enough to calm the waters or repair the damage to the credibility of one of broadcast journalism’s most credible figures.

As public apologies go, Williams gave a good one. He owned a mistaken recall of events, directed his apology to the servicemen involved in the false story and expressed an appropriate amount of remorse. But Williams didn’t fully answer the question of why he made up the story in the first place, and why it took so long to admit it — to the world, to himself.

It was the kind of incident that would be hard to forget.

As Williams reported it in 2003, he was in a Chinook helicopter that took enemy fire from a propelled rocket grenade and made an emergency landing, rolling into the desert at the edge of an Iraqi airport. In reality, Williams and his camera crew were in a Chinook helicopter that arrived somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes later. The crew of the stricken helicopter was still assessing damage when Williams arrived. All the helicopters and crew remained in place for two or three days, surrounded by an Army unit for protection. No one reported any enemy fire during that time.

In the excitement of the moment, Williams filed a report on the life-and-death incident, putting himself in harm’s way in the helicopter that was hit. As you would expect, the hot-dogging irritated the men who actually were in harm’s way, but they were too busy to object or just assumed it was another hotshot TV reporter showing off.

Williams has emerged as one of TV’s most respected and trusted TV guys. Because of his willingness to let his broadcast anchor hair down on shows like Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, Williams also has wide appeal. He is the most watched guy on TV news.

His reputation is based on a lot more than the helicopter incident in the Iraq desert, but since 2003 his reputation has included continual reference to the incident. NBC traded on the incident. Tom Brokaw interviewed Williams about the incident. So when Williams repeated his false story last week as part of tribute to a retired soldier, the crew in the 159th Aviation Regiment had had enough.

Sgt. Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the helicopter carrying Williams and crew, went to Stars and Stripes. “No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft,” Miller said.

“It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it,” said Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer of the helicopter that was hit. “It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”

Stars and Stripes exhumed from the NBC online archive the headline of Williams story: “Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams Was Riding In Comes Under Fire.”

In his apology, Williams said that 12 years after the incident, his memory had conflated the helicopter being hit and his later arrival. “Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience … and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, 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.”

However, Williams didn’t explain or apologize for why he falsely reported his direct involvement in the first place. Unquestionably, it made for a better story, but it was baldly untrue. He also didn’t explain why he repeated the false story in a piece he wrote in 2007 or variously described the incident. In some versions, he rode in the helicopter trailing the helicopter that was hit.

Print and broadcast journalists have been sanctioned or fired for falsifying stories. Williams may face discipline himself from NBC.

Whether he is or not, his credibility has taken a blow. Social media blew up following his apology, with many dismissing his apology as insufficient and others poking fun at him for taking credit where credit wasn’t due. At #BrianWilliamsMemories, there were online parodies of Williams reporting from the moon, being seated at the Last Supper, hitting the beach at Normandy and chronicling an asteroid storm that wiped out the earthly world of dinosaurs. One wag placed Williams alongside O.J. Simpson on his famous freeway ride.

Funny stuff for us; not so funny for Williams. He was back at the anchor desk, but a big chunk of his reputation was left in shreds on the cutting room floor.