By James M. Perry
For Brian Williams, this is all so sad, for it never needed to happen.
I sympathize with Mr. Williams, for he was born in Elmira, N.Y., and so was I. We both attended the Hendy Avenue Elementary School. He moved on to New Jersey, I moved on to Philadelphia. There is (or was) a big sign entering Elmira. I think it reads, Elmira, N.Y., Home Town of Brian Williams.
Mr. Williams' fall from grace was touched off by angry soldiers, who said his story about being in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade simply wasn't true. He was, in fact, miles away. Others jumped in with allegations that he had inserted himself into other stories, always with the intention of putting himself at the center of the action.
Why would he do that?
I suspect it was because, as a celebrated anchor he understood that his fame prohibited him from doing real reporting. Anchors usually manage the evening news and sometimes they travel with all their minions to trouble spots for a day or two to show the network flag. They make millions. Somebody else, though, does the bulk of the reporting.
More often than not, that "somebody else" for NBC News is a 41-year-old war correspondent, Richard Engel. He's covered fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, violence in Egypt and Syria and Libya, and dangerous situations in other places. He and his crew were kidnapped in Syria in 2012 (and released later). He was awarded the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism in 2007.
Richard Engel is the real thing.
Some anchors are frustrated because they really are pretty good reporters. I remember traveling with Roger Mudd when he was just beginning to be famous. We couldn't go anywhere without swarms of fans accosting Mr. Mudd and demanding a handshake or an autograph. It was deeply frustrating, for he was a fine reporter and those swarms of fans meant he couldn't do his job.
NBC News, Mr. Williams' employer, has a proud history. It broadcast the first newscast in history on Feb. 21, 1940, with Lowell Thomas, something of a celebrity himself, as anchor. The first celebrity anchors were Chet Huntley and David Brinkley; they anchored the NBC evening news for 14 years, beginning in 1956. Mr. Huntley's retirement gave CBS News the opening it needed, and that network's show, anchored by the avuncular Walter Cronkite, led the field for 19 years. Mr. Cronkite had been a war correspondent for United Press in World War II, seeing action in North Africa and Europe. That may have helped the night he condemned the war in Vietnam as unwinnable.
Mr. Williams has anchored the NBC evening show for ten years, and his audience is larger than that of anyone else. He's smooth, smart, sometimes even funny. He's a good, solid anchor with 9 million people tuning in five days a week to watch him anchor the day's news. It's not as big an audience as these shows used to attract, but 9 million viewers is still impressive.
Now, because of the lies, he may lose his job. Why did he do it? I suspect he did it because he wanted his American viewers to see him as a tough, courageous reporter, willing to travel to danger spots around the world. Just like his colleague, Richard Engel.
An old friend from Elmira e-mailed me about "our Brian."
"Very sad," she said.
James M. Perry, a prominent veteran political reporter, contributes regular observations to post-gazette.com. Mr. Perry was the chief political correspondent of The Wall Street Journal until his retirement. Prior to that, he covered national politics for the Dow Jones weekly, The National Observer.