Sunday, February 8, 2015

Brian Williams and 'Hogwash'

My mind isn't too far gone as yet, but I had totally forgotten, until reminded by my wife last night, about an "encounter" I had with Brian Williams (who is now taking a brief leave from his NBC post under fire, so to speak) back in 2008.  As a famed and influential journalist, his misreading of my article and sourcing back then might be nearly as troubling as a decade of confabulation.  And, as a sidelight, there's even a reference to seeing bodies floating face down in New Orleans after Katrina.

I was in my seventh year as the editor of Editor & Publisher, then the "bible of the newspaper industry."  I had directed or written hundreds of articles on press coverage of the Iraq war, and how the media screwed up in a truly tragic fashion (especially in the run-up to the 2003 invasion).  For our highly critical, and for quite a time on-the-fringe coverage, we won numerous national awards.  I collected some of my own pieces in a book, So Wrong for So Long, which came out in the spring of 2008.   

Also coming out with a book that spring: Scott McClellan, former punching bag as press secretary for President George W. Bush.  To the surprise of many, McClellan admitted the press had been badly misled on Iraq and he sharply criticized them for falling for the false reports promoted by Bush officials and spokesmen (including himself).  The New York Times called me for a comment, and I talked about the McClellan book in a segment on Bill Moyers' PBS show.  Moyers, of course, was one of the few who got Iraq right from the start.

Well, that sent many in the media into defensive mode.  I collected some of their responses (don't miss David Gregory's and Mike Allen's)  in an E&P piece near  the end of May 2008.   Imagine my surprise when I got a lengthy email from Brian Williams.  It was the first time I had ever heard from him, although in the opening he revealed he was a regular reader of my columns.

This was the passage in my piece that he objected to:
Or this from NBC's Brian Williams: “Sadly, we saw fellow Americans — in some cases floating past facedown (after Katrina). We knew what had just happened. We weren’t allowed that kind of proximity with the weapons inspectors [in Iraq]. I was in Kuwait for the buildup to the war, and, yes, we heard from the Pentagon, on my cell phone, the minute they heard us report something that they didn’t like. The tone of that time was quite extraordinary.” And this: "“It’s tough to go back, to put ourselves in the mind-set. It was post-9/11 America."
So the Pentagon tells the media what kind of reporting is in- and out-of-bounds? Hogwash. Hogwash! HOGWASH.
His letter was marked "not for publication" but I can fairly summarize it here.

Williams was angry that I had allegedly misinterpreted his defense of media coverage and particularly my claim that it was "hogwash."  He said he wanted to make "damn sure" this wasn't being directed his way, "or we could have a problem."  I'm not sure if he was threatening further emails, getting called out on national TV, or some sort of libel suit.

He then went in some detail explaining why surely I must have been "kidding" when I raised my eyebrows about the Pentagon trying to shape policy.  Of course, he said, this happened all the time, and he cited examples, including being called while on the air to retract his observation that there was mass looting in Baghdad when he had watched it with his very eyes--or so he claimed (we have to wonder about all that now).  But, of course, he merely listened to all those complaints, and then put them aside.  Same with the constant backlash in covering the Obama and McCain campaigns, which floated right off his back. Again: "As my daughter would say, are you kidding me?"

Fair enough so far, you say?  Not really, since Williams wanted it both ways.  In his email he says he was unmoved by the Pentagon pressure, but in his 2008 quote in my piece he asked us to understand that, well, those were very different times and the pressure was, maybe, understandable.

And there was a more significant problem: Why was he writing to me at all?   The passage he objected to--including the hated "hogwash"--did not come from me.  It was clearly marked in my column as the work of two reporters from McClatchy, Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, who as it happens were among the very few who raised serious and persistent questions about Bush's WMD "evidence" during the run-up to the war.  You can read their full critique here, with the Williams passage.  (They did not include Williams saying in the same interview, "I think it's, it's tough to go back. Put ourselves in the mindset. It was still post-9/11 America.")

So Brian Williams, top anchor and managing editor, had completely gotten this source dead wrong.  He had even written to the wrong person to complain.

But let's continue.  In his email to me, Williams then bizarrely expanded on his you-obviously-don't-understand-those-times defense (even though I had lost a friend in 9/11 and edited a media magazine during the entire period).  How? By linking his contextual defense to one offered by Earl Warren, the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who on his death bed tried to explain why the court had okayed (in the famous "Korematsu" case) the mass detention of Japanese-Americans during World War II.  Like Williams, Warren had explained "you have to understand the times."  If I was Williams, I would not have gone there, if you know what I mean.

Williams then closed his email charging it was just too easy for so many to claim the war was partly the fault of the media or even to make a sweeping (if rather obvious to nearly everyone else) suggestion that the media was "too soft." 

I'm tempted to reply (this time in my own voice): Hogwash.

And see my 2008 piece on Williams' interview with Tom Brokaw also in response to the McClellan book--with Brokaw also vigorously defending war coverage.  With no push back from Brian.


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