Brian Williams discusses career, election season
Published: Tuesday, April 24, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, April 24, 2012 05:04
NBC Nightly News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams discussed his career, entertainment journalism and the upcoming elections in front of a packed Distler Performance Hall yesterday for the seventh annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism.
The forum, which was moderated by University Trustee and Co−Chairman of the Board of Loews Corporation Jonathan Tisch (LA ’76), was sponsored by the Communications and Media Studies (CMS) Program, the Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service.
Williams, who succeeded Tom Brokaw and has anchored the nation’s top−rated newscast since 2004, followed past speakers Katie Couric, Ted Koppel and Dan Rather in honoring the legacy of renowned CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and discussing the future of journalism.
Julie Dobrow, director of the CMS Program, introduced Williams as a “journalistic trailblazer” not unlike Murrow.
“Through his years of fascinating and insightful interviews, reporting and news analysis, he is furthering efforts to use media in ways that extend the scope and reach of journalism today,” she said.
Tisch began the interview by highlighting Williams’ lack of a college degree. Williams, who attended three colleges without ever graduating, explained that his working−class upbringing in New Jersey proved an initial barrier to his education.
“I couldn’t have defined for you the Ivy League. It wasn’t in our canon,” he said. “I’ve since put a daughter through [Yale University], officially achieving the American dream.”
Williams said that his parents had wanted him to attend Tufts but that he could not do so because of financial limitations.
“I don’t recommend [not completing college] for anyone,” he said. “But I chose the one occupation where if you can sit down blind on jetlag and in a hostile environment, and you’ve been flying and traveling for 36 hours, and you sit down at a keyboard and you can write, you’re in.”
In addition to his unusual career path, Williams told the audience of students, administrators and local community members about his experience moderating in what has proven to be a robust presidential debate calendar.
“It’s as alert as you have to be in my job,” he said. “It is a high wire act. A mistake or a word used or omitted here or there can change the tenor.”
“I think we can always learn watching someone on their feet,” he added.
Williams also acknowledged the backlash that he inevitably faces when confronting politicians with difficult questions.
“It’s red meat. We are not in this occupation to get ticker tape parades and win popularity awards,” Williams said. “We still have a vital job to do in a democracy.”
“It comes with the territory,” he said.
Williams said that he only abandoned his self−effacing humor to recount his now infamous experience covering Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He described his frustration watching as National Guard soldiers patted down refugees entering the New Orleans Superdome for shelter, merely to ensure that they were not bringing lighters into the building, where open flames were prohibited.
“They get patted down, handed a [Meal Ready−to−Eat]. Each [Meal Ready−to−Eat] contains a pack of matches,” he said. “It started there and it became tragic. We saw people dying in the structure, just in the shelter of last resort — you know the trips when you have to pull up anchor and go.”
The veteran reporter expressed both wariness and enthusiasm for entertainment news shows such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” which he referred to as a “supplement” to more traditional news sources.
“I would be very, very concerned if you’re getting your news from Jon [Stewart],” he said.
“[But] he fills an absolute role in our democracy ... They call people out on an equal opportunity basis, and I think it’s the best public−service use of comedy,” he added.
When prompted about the possibility of running for public office, Williams responded with a definitive negative, citing the difficulty for a journalist to return to journalism after crossing into politics.
While he acknowledged the prevalence and importance of alternative news sources, Williams expressed hope that consumers will return “home” to NBC Nightly News.
“We’re like a public utility: We’ll always be there,” he said. “Especially when things happen, when people need the world explained.”