Jack Ohman

Fast crowd, tall tales and fall of Brian Williams

Brian Williams, shown preparing for an interview in 2012, is under a six-month suspension as “NBC Nightly News” anchor after admitting he lied about his helicopter being fired on in Iraq.
Brian Williams, shown preparing for an interview in 2012, is under a six-month suspension as “NBC Nightly News” anchor after admitting he lied about his helicopter being fired on in Iraq. New York Times file

Over the course of my career, I have met quite a number of television news anchors, local and national. My experience with them is that they are interesting, bright and broadly educated. I haven’t met Ted Baxter, even though I am from Minnesota, home of the fictional “Mary Tyler Moore Show” newsroom.

I have known Ted Koppel, Bill O’Reilly and met Dan Rather in an informal setting. We discussed fly fishing and JFK. I stood next to Walter Cronkite on two different occasions and was not formally introduced, to my everlasting regret. Cronkite watched me give a speech in New York about 20 years ago, and he laughed. I almost shook his hand, but someone cut me off. Well, that’s the way it … never mind.

I won’t say who that someone was, but she was a very powerful television news executive with CBS. Don Hewitt, the legendary CBS “60 Minutes” producer, was sitting with her. During the short course of my remarks, he leaned over to her and said, “We could make him the next Andy Rooney.”

When she told me this, you can imagine what went through my mind. Immediately my mind started going to egomaniacal places I had never plumbed before. Television news can do that to you. One minute you’re Joe Schmoe Obscure Cartoonist from Oregon, and the next, you’re sailing with Uncle Walter.

It didn’t turn out that way, for several different reasons, but my hair wasn’t one of them.

I have never met Brian Williams. So when I heard about Williams and his exaggeration issue, my first thought was, “Why? The man probably has an astronomical number of completely true anecdotes that would entertain any given audience from a joint session of Congress on down.” Of course, entertaining this particular Congress might not be that hard. Hand puppets would work.

Being the anchor for NBC Nightly News is cool enough. Why did he have to say that he was nearly shot down when he wasn’t? Why did he have to say he saw a floating body or a suicide in New Orleans when he didn’t? I don’t get it. Or maybe I do.

We have sliding scales of what is expected of us. You can easily entertain your father-in-law with weird things that happened to you on the fourth hole at the public golf course. But Williams runs in a fast crowd.

“Oh, hey, Secretary Clinton! I was just telling Henry Kissinger and Joyce Carol Oates a funny story about General Powell and how he blew a putt with George Clooney, Dianne Feinstein and Sting.”

Good news anchors are fascinating. Anyone who has spent 15 minutes with Ted Koppel would tell you he is funny, brilliant and accessible. I know this is hard to believe, but I very much enjoyed Bill O’Reilly when he was a local news anchor in Portland in 1985.

O’Reilly was planning to go to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, which he did. He was wry and clever. Lots of people in Portland still stay in touch with him. I also know lots of people in Sacramento who adore Rush Limbaugh from his days at KFBK. In fact, no one says anything bad about him.

What’s sad about Williams is that his fabrications aren’t just fish stories, they’re I-broke-off-Moby-Dick-on-a-worm-and-bobber stories. Dramatic effect is one thing, but saying you witnessed a suicide when you didn’t is an entirely different matter.

Williams’ career has taken a dreadful turn. It’s truly a shame. But this is America, so he’ll be given a chance at a comeback.

I take no joy in this man’s downfall, and believe me, a lot of my right-wing brethren are loving this. I’m not. But we deserve to have television news anchors be credible. Not saints. Credible.

Because if they’re not, what do we have?

Ted Baxter.