Brian Williams Claims Great Compassion, But Has Faulty Memory of His Own Shows

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams granted an interview to the website Mediaite on Thursday, boasting that whatever the Obama administration and BP are doing to stop the oil spill is due to TV news cameras. Obama is behind the Williams curve, apparently.

Williams insisted he led with the story on the first night and described it on air as potentially "one of the most catastrophic events of all time" for the environment. Except he didn't lead the news with it on the first night. And he didn't call it a catastrophe. Here's his claim today:

The night the rig exploded I went on the air, it was our lead story. I asked the question, 'Is this going to lead to one of the most catastrophic events of all time where the environment is concerned?'

I got a kick out of President Obama saying that even when the cameras go away we'll still be there for you. That ain't the way this is going to play out. If anything, the cameras being here have compelled outside interests - government, BP - to kick this into another gear.

With all due respect, the President might have had his scenario off by 180 degrees. So we'll keep coming back here, we won't take our eyes off this region, we haven't since we knew we had a Category 5 storm off the coastline five years ago.

On April 21, the first Nightly News report came second in the broadcast, after a story about "massive cutbacks" for public schools, post-"stimulus." Then Williams introduced Ron Mott:

Coast Guard rescuers spent the day looking for as many as 11 missing oil workers after a huge explosion rocked a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Came out of nowhere. It left several workers critically injured. And the vigil is on again tonight for people working in a dangerous job. Our own Ron Mott is with us tonight from Port Fourchon in Louisiana.

On April 22, Williams led the newscast with it, but he didn't suggest catastrophe. He actually understated it, that it "can't be good for the environment." The full context:

It was a spectacular explosion, a massive fire and a genuine human tragedy involving 11 missing men. Tonight, the oil platform that was on fire off the coast of Louisiana is gone. It sank today into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and the first thing a lot of people thought about was all that oil. This can't be good for the environment. It's where we start off tonight with NBC's Ron Mott.

Williams did call it "catastrophic" and a "slow-motion environmental disaster"...on April 26, once the conventional wisdom had hardened.

Steve Krakauer at Mediaite, who conducted the interview, noted that Jon Friedman had called Williams the Cronkite of the new century, and "it makes his Pres. Obama comments that much more damning. 'If we've lost BriWi'...."

This kind of talk only feeds the abundant arrogance of Williams, whose peacock routine in this interview might remind the public of a preening Peter Jennings. NBC and the other networks have persistently covered the oil spill. They might seem more persistent than the government (especially as Obama seems distracted with fluff like golf and Beatles). But Williams seems to miss that news anchors and cameramen don't close oil spills. He's not offering expertise. He's just offering persistent public embarrassment to spur action.

Here's another snippet of the interview where Williams feels "compelled by pride" to boast:

MEDIAITE: You returned to the gulf region this week after about four weeks from the last time you were there.What do you see as one of the biggest changes in the time that you've been away?

WILLIAMS: It was May 3, I guess, when we arrived last time. I'm compelled by pride to point out I think this is something like our 16th trip to this region as a broadcast. And it seemed so innocent looking back on that trip. We didn't know - the slick was much smaller, we knew this time bomb was coming, I never dreamed we'd still be talking about an even healthier flow of oil into the water, and I never dreamed that we'd be in Grand Isle, looking out at - I'm looking right now at the water line, a beautiful harbor surrounding by orange plastic booms. It is unbelievable to behold once you're here.

So Williams, in an eight-minute interview, can both claim that (a) he knew immediately it would be a historic catastrophe for the environment and (b) that he never dreamed the oil spill would be this "healthy." It shouldn't make NBC Nightly News viewers confident that Williams will always give them a reliable account of what's just happened.

-Tim Graham is Director of Media Analysis at the Media Research Center.