The Mirror

Brian Williams: ‘It Has Been Torture’

Betsy Rothstein Gossip blogger
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Considering the nine murders in a Charleston church this week at the hands of a racist, mentally deranged young man, this seems a little over the top.

But no one can plan the news cycle.

Not even soon-to-be MSNBC’s Brian Williams, who returns from his suspension in August with a demotion, a pay cut and a new position within the NBC family.

“It has been torture,” Williams told NBC “TODAY Show” host Matt Lauer, when asked what the last five months have been like for him during his public timeout for exaggerating and in some cases outright lying about his role in news stories. “I have discovered a lot of things. … I have been listening to and watching what amounts to the black box recordings from my career. I’ve gone back through everything, basically 20 years of public utterances.”

With a journalist’s eye, Williams took a microscope to himself over the past two days in hard interviews with Lauer, who explained to viewers up front that there were no rules and nothing was off limits.

Part psychotherapy, part confessional, hearing Brian Williams try to make sense of his lies is as torturous as he says it is. As elegant and trustworthy as ever in his demeanor, you can’t help but want to believe him. And besides, it’s generous to give people second chances.

But does he deserve it? Even Lauer seems uncertain.

The sincerity of his self-ridicule is unavoidably gratifying.

“It has been a time of realization, trying to find out in me what changed,” Williams told Lauer. “You know, in our work I have always treated words very carefully. … That’s the coin of our realm. … It’s the key to our integrity and our credibility. But Matt, it is clear when I got out of the building, I used a double standard. Something changed, and I was sloppier, and I said things that weren’t true. Looking back, that’s plain.”

Williams said he scoured newspaper stories about himself and didn’t like the person they were about. “I would have given anything to get to the end of the story and have it been about somebody else,” he said.

Things got painfully awkward when Lauer pushed him to admit he lied.

Williams wouldn’t say it. Instead, he said he did not intend to mislead people. He attempted to psychoanalyze himself.

“This came from clearly a bad place, a bad urge inside me,” he said, seeming to be nearly as appalled with himself as everyone else. “This was clearly ego driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in. That is what I’ve been tearing apart and unpacking and analyzing.”

As tough as Lauer was on him, other colleagues seemed more forgiving. On the MSNBC “Morning Joe” panel Friday, most everyone put in a plug for second chances, especially Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough.

“The older that we get we find out the moments that make us better are the moments that break us,” said Scarborough, who did not offer to elaborate on what those moments were in his life. “We’ve all been broken in one way or another.”

MSNBC contributor Eugene Robinson was the only journalist on the panel not to echo what Mika and Joe were pushing about second chances. He congratulated his friend Lester Holt on his promotion to William’s job in the “Nightly News” anchor chair and said how deserving he was of the position.

New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters, who also appeared on Friday’s program, looks at the Williams ordeal as more of a wake-up call for journalists.

“This whole episode is a reminder: check yourself,” he said. “Make sure that you’ve got all your facts right, that you’re not being hyperbolic.”

Peters said his career involved being forced to go door to door asking real people questions. “So many people who are coming up in journalism today don’t actually report,” he said. “A lot of these kids today, they sit in their cubicle and they analyze. They’re 24-years-old and they analyze, and that’s just not the way we should be practicing journalism.”

Back at the “TODAY Show,” Lauer wasn’t backing down, and 56-year-old Williams was about to do some more analyzing. “Did you consider going on the air and just saying you lied?” he asked Williams pointedly.

The short answer: No.

“What happened is clearly my ego getting the better than me,” said Williams, “[I wanted to] put myself in a better light, to appear better than I was. That’s the process here.”

But Williams insisted that lying wasn’t his intention and no, it wasn’t necessarily conscious.

“I said things that were wrong,” he said. “It wasn’t from a place where I was trying to use my job and title to mislead. … I own this and I own up to this.”

Asked about the internal investigation and if he’s aware of the results, Williams readily said he is, but declined to elaborate.

Lauer never let him off the hook. He asked, “Are there other stories that you now admit that you told regarding other news stories that you were involved in that were also untrue?”

“It is clear and in many cases, years later, I said things that were wrong,” Williams reasoned. And this is where it’s easy to want to believe every word coming out of his mouth.”One is too much,” he implores. “Any number north of zero is too much. I can’t have it in my life. I can’t have it in my work. I can’t have it in the company we work for.”

And still, Lauer went in for the kill. “Would you like to take this opportunity now to correct the record?” he asks.

The short answer: No.

“I would like to take this opportunity to say what has been happened in the past has been torn apart by me, has been fixed and has been dealt with,” said Williams. “Going forward there will be different rules of the road. …I get this. I am responsible of this. I am sorry for what happened here. I am different as a result and I expect to be held to a different standard.”

MSNBC certainly can’t get any worse.

And with Williams on board, it’s going to be hard not to watch.