LOS ANGELES — NBC sent its best-known morning-news anchor, Matt Lauer, to grill its best-known evening-news host, Brian Williams, in an exchange on its popular “Today” that was by turns awkward, dramatic and surreal — and aimed at easing Williams back into acceptance in a daytime perch at a sister cable outlet.
Lauer, in an interview he told “Today” viewers had “no conditions or guidelines” placed on it, pressed now-demoted anchor Williams hard for the real reasons why he had, over the years, embellished stories of his reporting exploits. In return, Williams offered excuses, but never really managed to cough up an explanation.
“It had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else,” Williams said in a taped interview that was shown in two segments on Thursday morning’s “Today.” Yet when Lauer offered the newsman, now set to embark upon a new career as a breaking-news anchor at MSNBC, a chance to detail for viewers the false stories he had told and when he told them, Williams demurred. NBCUniversal has taken a similar stance, refusing to tell the public the exact instances in which Williams made embellishments.
The comments are Williams’ first in public since being suspended without pay from NBC News in February amid a mushrooming controversy over false statements he made about a 2003 reporting trip to Iraq. In several venues, including a moment on “Nightly News” and in a visit to CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman,” Williams said he was aboard a helicopter that was under enemy fire. His statements were earlier this year challenged by military veterans.
On Thursday, NBCUniversal announced that Williams would be relocated from his perch as “NBC Nightly News” anchor to MSNBC where he will focus on breaking news and specials. Lester Holt, the veteran anchor who was tapped to sub for Williams after the suspension, has been named his permanent replacement.
An NBC News investigation found that Williams had made mistatements of fact about his experiences on more than one occasion, mostly during his TV and public appearances outside of NBC News platforms. In the “Today” interview, Williams said he allowed himself to operate under a double standard, of sorts, when he was not on NBC that allowed him to be “sloppier” with his choice of words.
Lauer did not blanch from asking Williams tough questions. “Did you not deal with the reality that when you walked away from NBC, whether it was to appear on a late-night show or some other venue, some other interview show, that the title and the responsibilities of anchor-slash-managing editor traveled with you?”
Williams said he erred in trying to make himself more a part of the action he covered than was appropriate or necessary.
Lauer also asked if Williams knowingly lied to viewers on “NBC Nightly News” earlier in the year, leaving the anchor to fumble for an explanation that made sense. “Was it conscious, Brian? …. Did you know it was not true?”
Williams said the on-air gaffe “came from a sloppy choice of words,” a response that does not mesh with logic. He cited “a bad place, a bad urge inside me” as the rationale for his actions, and said he did not deliberately intend to mislead people.
“I own this, I own up to this,” he said.
Williams vowed to live by “different rules of the road,” and told Lauer he was “a grateful and chastened man” who valued the opportunity to have a second chance.
“I am sorry for what’s happened here. I am different as a result,” he said.
Yet he also told Lauer he pushed back against leaving his roost at the network’s evening-news program.
“Was it my first choice? No. Obviously, I wanted to return to my old job.” he said.
Now, Williams intends to win back acceptance from viewers, even those that are skeptical. He vowed “to work every day for it” and even said he would consider going “door to door” if such a thing were indeed possible and might help him re-establish a relationship with viewers.
The interview, portions of which will also be played this evening on “NBC Nightly News,” is a first step by NBCUniversal to rehabilitate the reputation of one of the most recognizable faces on its networks. Williams’ move to MSNBC could prove a benefit for the cable-news network, which has seen its ratings tumble in recent years. Under its president, Phil Griffin, MSNBC is emphasizing breaking-news coverage during its daytime schedule, while continuing to present news analysis through a progressive lens during primetime.
Speaking to viewers on her program Thursday evening, MSNBC Rachel Maddow said she was “happy” Williams was coming to MSNBC and suggested he should have a chance to redeem himself. His interview with Lauer marked an intitial attempt by a major media corporation to do just that, but even Lauer could not get the newsman to do the one thing that would accomplish that goal — telling viewers exactly what he did wrong, and why.