- Anchor and Managing Editor, NBC Nightly News
As one of the nation's most respected journalists, NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams thinks a great deal about the changes taking place in the communications industry.
"Obviously what’s happened is we’re getting pulled in a million ways," Williams says. "The biggest change is that you are now media, and so is everyone in this room, so is everyone on this campus."
Williams wonders about the effects this is having on American society, and asks whether there has been an erosion in the nation's sense of cohesion and common experience.
“The collective viewing experience was part of America. We’d all come in (to work) in the morning and say, ‘Wow, Carson’s monologue, boy did he kill it.’ And everyone would have seen it. Now the president is competing with my iPad. He’s competing with a 4-year-old after dental work falling asleep in the back seat. He’s competing with ‘Friday.’
“My worry as someone who gets to travel America and have regular conversations with Americans is that it’s eroding us somehow. I don’t quite know what I’m honing in on, but I fear it’s having a larger effect on society than we yet know, the pace of things, the distractions, the number of things competing for our attention.”
You are anchor of the No. 1 news show and managing editor as well. How did you get started on this journey?
This journey started in the most ordinary way, and so it’s shocking to me that I am where I am. I can’t pretend that it’s any different. I had an achingly normal middle-class upbringing in upstate New York and on the Jersey shore. As I tell the students wherever I go, I am a college dropout. I probably have only completed all of 18 credits of college study. I tried three different times at three different institutions. I was one of the kids in the back of the high school yearbook that was shunted off to the local community college. The yearbook published everyone else’s choices and I was one of the eight kids who was just going to go to the default school.
What I also tell students is if you use the word “moxie,” if you are a hustler, if you are resourceful, you can get by. You can make your way in the world. And if you’re armed with an ideal, a power idea, a goal, in my experience there is nothing more powerful than that. No one was going to get in my way. I had this powerful secret at about age 8, that I couldn’t share with anybody. When I was a fireman in New Jersey, I couldn’t tell my engine company mates, “oh, but what you don’t know is I have these fantastic plans … here’s what I’m going to end up doing.” I would have been laughed out of the firehouse, deservedly so. But it happened, and it happened because I was willing to take the plunge and start in television in the Midwest. I took a bunch of knocks and I thought I was knocked out of the business a couple of times. I thought I was terrible at it, but I found other ways in. If you rise like water, if you come in through every crack and crevice, don’t take no for an answer.
Oh, by the way, it doesn’t hurt to try to be better than everyone else you encounter along the way. If you’re very lucky, marry the right person, stay married to the right person for 25 years, that’s the guide to success.
Tell me about the most important ways the news business has changed during your career?
It’s funny that I’ve been in this job at NBC Nightly News for six years. I guess I was an understudy for eight years before that. The common denominator, and I’ve been in the business close to 30, is that I’ve read repeated obituaries of what I do for a living. A million people have told me, “Well you know these network evening newscasts, they’re not going to be around much longer. One of you will get out of the business here shortly.” Of course, this past winter I was in Cairo, the day when just everything went to blazes and there was an open gunfight in the streets. That night I think 12.3 million Americans tuned in to see what was going on in Egypt. That taught us something. That’s an astounding monumental number of people in today’s media landscape. With all the things people have to watch and the distractions in their world, our franchise is as vital as ever.
Obviously what’s happened is we’re getting pulled in a million ways. The biggest change: you are now media, and so is everyone in this room, so is everyone on this campus. When I got into this business they were all audience. They were all consumers. Some of them, if you’re old enough, were consumers of a world with three channels, three networks, maybe four depending on where you lived. Now everybody talks or has the ability to. Everyone has an audience of their own, people hungry to find out what they had for breakfast and read their Twitter feed or their blog during the day. That is a huge change, and the people who hear us talk about it think we’re bemoaning our exclusivity loss. That’s not it at all. We’re still going to go oversees and get shot at and do what we do. We hope that people, amid the din, realize that it’s still good quality reporting.
We live in a culture right now that seems to focus on what one might charitably call “light” news. How do you keep folks interested in serious topics?
Well it’s really easy for us. We’re one of the last repositories. I never get a phone call from the head office upstairs saying, “You know what, a lot of people find the Kardashians really interesting; if you could soften this up and take something off your fast ball, you’d probably get more viewers.” That doesn’t happen to me. The management of NBC News believe the nightly news is best when it’s serious. It’s one of the last great serious repositories of news. I can always say, and I’ve always luckily, happily been able to say, that we defend the ramparts, we keep them at bay. I am not under pressure to change. I see what comes on before me and after me. Everywhere I go. I see it in New York. I’m aware of it, and I see what’s on the newsstands and I see what’s on the Web. It makes it all the more amazing that I get away with what I get away with, and that is a serious enough half hour that I stack it up against anything.
How concerned are you about the cutbacks in international news bureaus?
Well to give you an example, when it was time to fly over to Cairo and see what was going to happen to Hosni Mubarak, we flew into Cairo and went to work at our Cairo bureau, which is staffed full-time 24/7. When the quake happened in Tokyo it was covered by our Tokyo bureau. When I travel the Middle East, usually our point of entry is Amman, Jordan, or Tel Aviv. We have offices and people in both places. Absolutely there’s no question that fewer people are covering foreign news for the U.S. news organizations. That is true of us, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, all of the networks, CNN. But I think we’re now much faster, more agile, smarter and more portable. I think technology allows us to do that. God forbid something happens here on campus, using a hand-held device I can get on the NBC television network. It won’t be beautiful quality, but I can get on television, and I can do it by whipping something out of my briefcase, firing it up and they’ll see me in the control room. That’s a big change. That empowers. Almost every individual can be a bureau under those circumstances.
Are you optimistic about the America your future grandchildren are going to inherit?
This takes us into tough territory. I’m an optimist about so many things, but I’m also a reader of history. In my patriotism, in my love of my country, as I like to say, I yield to no one. I’m on the board of the Medal of Honor Foundation. We represent right now 86 living Medal of Honor recipients. My job is to raise money and awareness for them. I get to hang out with truly the greatest heroes in the United States. I think the best people I’ve ever known. I love this place. This place has allowed a college dropout from the Jersey shore to climb to the heights of media in the United States.
I am worried that we have lost that thing that allowed us to pull off an outlandish victory against tyranny in World War II. That thing, that ship, that transistor, that inner-drive. Think about it, about the rubber, oil and metal. Think of what we did without, and think of the all-consuming war effort. Not a good thing at all about war, there is nothing good about it, but as I study that era, I’m absolutely fascinated. We were so young a country compared to today. There were so many differences. But we did it. It was a Titanic struggle, literally for the planet. I look at us today, I look at what preoccupies us, what distracts us, what we do with our free time. I look at our free time spent on electronic media and I wonder, “What did we used to do with that?” Well I suspect we maybe interacted with people, we used it to think, we used it to read, we used it to get better marginally. So I have some deep-seated worries because I love this country. I have some real worries about making us better and my children’s generation and yours.