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So What Do You Do, Brian Williams, anchor NBC Nightly News?

The anchor expounds on his blogging schedule and 'slamming stories together'

By Diane Clehane - September 19, 2007
Before Brian Williams ascended to the top spot at NBC News, countless stories chronicled his ten-year apprenticeship spent filling in for Tom Brokaw while biding his time with his own broadcasts on MSNBC and CNBC. The truth is, his wait was decades longer. Williams knew he wanted to be a news anchor by the ripe old age of eight and began boning up for the big time by staging imaginary newscasts from his living room in Elmira, New York (He also published a weekly newspaper using his father's shirt cardboards). "I was blessed to have big, almost arrogant dreams as a kid," he says. While it's difficult to imagine television's most tireless and earnest news anchor doing anything else, Williams' early life as a college drop out and New Jersey volunteer firefighter hardly foreshadowed the future. But it's his solid middle class roots that he says gave him the tools to reach for -- and land -- one of the most competitive jobs in television.

Although not exactly cut from the paternalistic cloth of his predecessors (Williams is more like a smarter older brother with his encyclopedic knowledge of the presidency, NASCAR and pop culture), he readily embraces comparisons made between his broadcast and the traditional mold created in the Cronkite era. "I venerate the giants," he says soberly. Chances are, though, his idols could never have imagined blogging about what goes on behind the scenes in their newsrooms or broadcasting excerpts from a 'manifesto' sent to them by a mass murderer. For Brian Williams, it's all in a day's work.

Name: Brian Williams
Position: Anchor and managing editor, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams
Resume: Joined NBC News in 1993; named White House correspondent in 1994. Prior to assuming his current role as anchor of Nightly News in December 2004, helmed MSNBC's nightly newscast when the network launched in 1996 and later moved the show to CNBC in 2003. Before joining NBC spent seven years at CBS as a correspondent and anchor in Philadelphia and New York; worked at WTTG in Washington, DC. Began his television career at KOAM-TV in Pittsburgh, Kansas. Worked as a college intern during the Carter administration; left college for an administrative position at the National Association of Broadcasters.
Birthdate: May 5, 1959
Hometown: Elmira, New York. "When I was ten I moved to Middletown, New Jersey, so I claim both."
Education: Never graduated college. "I started out at a community college, I then went to Catholic [University] and then transferred to George Washington [University] before stopping I don't know how many credits short of a degree to go follow my dream."
Marital Status: Married to former television news producer Jane Stoddard since 1986, two children.
First section of the Sunday Times: "I go for Week in Review. I usually peruse everything from what the comics are saying to the op-ed page and there's usually one take-out piece that I like. By that time, though, I've usually read the front page. Then, I love obits because often that is some of the only news that surprises me in the paper. If it's an AP story or a Times bureau story you kind of know a lot of what they're going to say. I think I'm a pretty typical reader. I'll scan the Weddings. In my job, I'm lucky enough to get an advance copy of the magazine before I go home on Friday. I usually take a pathetic stab at the puzzle, get about four answers in and convince myself I'm too busy -- it couldn't possibly be that the puzzle is too hard. The last thing I read Sunday night before turning in is the book review section."
Favorite television show: "In the post-Sopranos era, I would have to say The Office -- 30 Rock is a close second. I've been a huge SNL fan since its inception. And Friday Night Lights -- it is the most creative and most serially underestimated show on television. I love that show. Talk about a realistic portrayal of married life. They get race right, they get high school kids right -- I've owned two of them, I know; they get marriage right -- a strong, long term marriage, I have one of those. I've never been a high school football coach but I have been to Texas and I have seen the yard signs in different communities saying, 'so-so jersey number player lives here.' I later learned from one of our correspondents that those are real homes [on the show]. They move into town and they shut down the streets and the furnishings you see are the furnishings you find in actual homes. Every part of that show is quality. I'm not a corporate lackey, but when I think of what we watch as a family, they all happen to be NBC shows."
Last book read: Ike by Michael Korda. "I'm in the middle of it. It's a doorstop but it's what I read. I'm thoroughly enjoying it."

Congrats on making the cover of Men's Vogue earlier this year. Are you disappointed that Roger Federer edged you out for the honor of being Anna Wintour's big crush?
I read about that! I'm not the typical reader -- I don't consider myself a clothes horse but I've got to say last the issue I picked up of that magazine -- I think it was the month after I was in it -- I found some really interesting articles in there including one about Phillip Johnson's glass house. They hire good writers and seem to do good work. All I know about Vogue is I just had to carry the September issue to my wife from our mailbox. I have biographies that weigh less!

So here's the big burning question we usually start with in these interviews: How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
Oh that's easy. I realize I started life with some good cards in my deck but I was also missing some others. I had the good fortune to come from a fifty-year marriage and loving household. While my father never made any real money, he was the classic provider. We weren't allowed any name brand sneakers or jeans and Christmas was often fairly thin, but I don't remember going in need of something. But then there's the part of life that didn't go so well -- dropping out of college. I came very close to taking the police exam in my town where I was a fireman. In Middletown, New Jersey, a lot of our fire department, which was all volunteer, was made up of police officers. You end up hanging out together in the same taverns. I came very close to settling down and not having a horizon beyond that town which would have been a fine life. I know because I have friends who have decided it's a fine life.

In this country exclusively, if you are armed with a dream -- even an outlandish one -- and you have the drive, there's really no limit to where you might go. I'd like to think I have a powerful message for students. When I give a graduation speech, I am able to say, "All of you gathered here today have an advantage over me you have a degree in your hands." I don't recommend my path to others, but I do recommend holding tight to people's dreams, goals and ambitions because this is the one country on the planet where the system is set up in a way to come true.

What are the key elements of your success?
If you're a bystander in your occupation, if you feel yourself pushed into what you're doing for a living or if you're doing it for the wrong reasons, that will weed out the less than the truly serious. You have to have burning desire. I have found having great mentors and great luck is something there's no substitute for. I am such a reflection of the team around me. I am the luckiest recipient of the best team of journalists ever assembled. I think all of the people who do what I do for a living walk around with a certain steady flow of guilt.

I don't think everyone in your position feels all that guilty.
Well, we get to put our name on these broadcasts and it is way out of whack because there wouldn't be Nightly News with Brian Williams without Richard Engel risking his life in the Middle East, without Andrea Mitchell and David Gregory knowing politics and the players as well as they do, without a video tape producer caring enough to find the perfect shot and an assignment editor working all night to get a live truck to the scene of a breaking story and allowing us the luxury to sleep. You get to be the recipient of all their collective efforts and it's with me every minute of every day.

It's almost three years since you were named anchor of Nightly News. Has the job been everything that you'd hoped it would be?
And more. I think that the job today is mildly indistinguishable as recently as when Tom [Brokaw] had it. Tom didn't have the Internet monster to feed. It's more portable. Fourteen trips to New Orleans since Katrina is something that I am endlessly proud of. We've got a New Orleans bureau because I work for a wealthy company -- a company that knows where to put its heart and actually did something unusual and said, 'Okay, great American city, we're gonna buy a stake in you. This is so important to us that we're gonna put out a shingle and ask staff members to leave their lives and families in places like Atlanta and come staff this bureau.' Certain stories have changed the direction of what we do.

We have a radio division we didn't have before. I write a daily blog. I update it when I'm on the road. We're shooting mini video taped pieces for the Web, we're updating the true believer viewers who click on whatever the update is and follow your progress during the day. 2.5 million streams a week -- people looking for Nightly News material on the Web. It just didn't exist [before].

Do you consider your blog something of an alternate universe to your broadcast? You take a much more personal approach and address the viewer in a much different way.
That's a great point. I'd never dream of using the first person on the air. This broadcast has to be about everything else but me, and yet if you take the time and trouble to read my blog, that tells me that you bring to the blog a certain level of interest about what we do for a living. I've used it for one extra-curricular vehicle. I'm a member of exactly one board of directors -- the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. So every day for 109 days we post a different biography of the 109 living Medal of Honors recipients. They've become a cause in my life. They are all about service, duty, sacrifice and valor. I have this great destination every day that gets to be my little corner of the blogosphere and no one has said to me, 'Hey, how unfair you calling attention to these medal of honor recipients! Stop that!' I chose this board membership very carefully because I think it's an organization and 109 individuals that are above reproach. So yes, it's a parallel universe. It's a style and minutiae that doesn't belong on Nightly News but it also feeds as a viewer's guide and accompaniment to Nightly News. It feeds those who are looking for a little bit more texture and context.

How much time do you devote to the blog on a daily basis?
You take a day like yesterday when I anchored the Petraeus hearings from 12:30 to 4, got off at 4 and went immediately to the Nightly News. I hadn't written a word for the broadcast so I never got to post a blog entry for the first time in ages. I can't remember the last time I haven't had time to say something. I come back after our editorial meeting when it's over at 3 o'clock and sit down and write something. Often I'll have a topic in mind, something will be bothering me or there's something I want to link to. It's like having a daily column, but the stakes are lower.

What's a typical day like for you?
If I'm not here for the 9:30 am conference call, I join by phone and then often walk in before the room is broken up. I love the sensation of walking down the hall toward the glass doors where the meeting is going on and hearing live what's happening on the other side of that glass, then I hang up and take my seat. We're here for quite a while afterwards. We know we've got to do another broadcast the next day, but we're never satisfied enough when we talk about what we just finished. We talk about what the competition just aired -- that's important. You put your heart and soul into these broadcasts every day and you know we're not doing this in a vacuum. We go on the air with two great news divisions across town gunning for us trying to do a lot of the same stories we have to cover because it's the news of the day. There's no substitute for competition. That's why monopolies aren't good.

Do you still clean your kitchen at night to relax?
I did it last night. You were the first person to "report" that years ago and people still mention it to me. I don't know what it says about men or our profession that it's of note that we have a home life, but one of my duties is to run through the kitchen before I turn in for the night. Although last night I must say that I went downstairs to let the dog in and my wife had done a beautiful job. All that was left for me to do was run the dishwasher. Cleaning the kitchen is very satisfying because you wake up to a clean slate and hopefully a clean countertop the next day.

Calling me the 'dean of anchors' is a lot like saying that The Empire State Building is the tallest building in New York. It's true, but it's by default.

You could not have possibly imagined being called "the dean of the evening news" as the New York Daily News christened you just six months into your tenure because of the unexpected departure of both Rather and Jennings. How did that affect the way things played out for you?
I said at the time and I really meant it, calling me the 'dean of anchors' is a lot like saying that The Empire State Building is the tallest building in New York. It's true, but it's by default. It didn't happen organically. It's a bizarre thing especially knowing how much I venerated these three positions and the three men that had them in the last go-round. Luckily, the daily deadline pressure and slamming these stories together deciding who will make the cut is so much of a preoccupation every day I don't have a lot of time sit around and think big thoughts about my position.

This year brought more upheaval with Charlie Gibson assuming the top spot at ABC and, of course, Katie's arrival at CBS. The big lesson here seems to be regular evening news viewers aren't big on change.
That's true. In a way, this is the biggest audience of habit left in television. Our viewers are profoundly faithful and very loyal. They are so brand conscious and thank God they are. I always say about the ratings I don't know what we could put in [the broadcast], how we could tinker with the formula if our goal was to suddenly up the ratings. It's kind of like you hope the best broadcast wins and we believe we put on the best of the bunch.

What do you make of the treatment your former NBC colleague has gotten in the press?
I wish everyone would take a deep breath. I wish everyone would judge Katie the way I'd like to be judged and that is on the quality of the journalism every night on the CBS Evening News. The rest of it is for journalists not worthy of the title. Katie is a colleague and a friend and as such, I'm a defender. She's doesn't need me to speak for her on her behalf but I want to say to everyone who has uttered a harsh word, let's keep our eyes on the ball.

Speaking of change, you have a new producer, and Nightly News is going to unveil a new set next month.
This is an exciting time. Alex [Wallace, Nightly's executive producer] is fantastic. There's a big reason behind [the new set]. This building is becoming the global headquarters of the network. We're bringing in everybody from MSNBC so all of us -- Channel 4, Telemundo, the division that puts out of our newsfeed -- News Channels are going to be under one roof. MSNBC is going to be next to Nightly News in the newsroom which, to quote John F. Kennedy, a rising tide lifts all boats. This is going to be fantastic. They are populated with some really aggressive young talent. To combine these families -- I think they should have been combined all along -- necessitated the blowing up of walls and breaking down of barriers both literal and figurative. This whole redesign meant we had to have a new set and no one here objected to that. Over my shoulder in certain shots you're going to see the entire gathered collective family of NBC.

Anything changing content-wise?
No. We're not going to let form drive function. Beyond a new set of graphics and the shot over my shoulder that will look different, Alex and I are so respectful and mindful of the fact that these audiences are used to a certain look and feel. Nothing is broken, so we don't want to go fixing things that don't need it.

It was interesting to see you interviewing James Gandolfini on Nightly not to long ago. Whose idea was it to interview him and promote a show on another network?
Mine. Everybody has their thing and I have a strong military bent. It just so happens this was his first post-Sopranos interview and by the way there wasn't a Sopranos word mentioned. He wouldn't have it and it seemed wrong anyway. (His HBO special, Alive Day Memories: Home From Iraq ) was a powerful hour of television. I think the cause and his passion superseded the difference in networks. Not a soul raised a syllable about, 'What are we doing promoting an HBO show?' That's one of the great things about working here people know a great story when they see one. I know it can be petty business, but I didn't hear that kind of thing. I didn't give it a second thought it was a venture of a competitor -- I looked at it as a cause.

This interview is taking place on the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. What did that event do to change the news business?
I think 9/11 knocked a bunch of us off our axis. I am still affected by every trip I make downtown. I almost try not to look across town on certain side streets because of the yawning gap I know is there. Six years out, I don't think we're yet in a position to calculate the cumulative effect on our psyche. That's why I love history and historians -- they get to be smarter than us and they take their time at it.

You mentioned earlier you've been in New Orleans quite a bit. Traveling seems to have become an increasingly important part of the anchor job, particularly in covering stories like Katrina and Virginia Tech. What's the deciding factor for you that your presence is needed at the site of a story?
There are some where there is no decision. With Virginia Tech, as soon as we got an indication that the death toll was going above a certain number, there was zero discussion about 'Should you go?' It just switched to, 'How do we get there?' You know 'em when you see 'em, you just know.

Were you surprised to find yourself being cast as the network's defender -- on Oprah no less -- for having aired portions of the shooter's 'manifesto?'
To her credit, I still don't know how she felt about it because she worked in television news for a long time. I approached the altar of Oprah with the profound amount of respect for her role in our society, which is undeniable, and she gave me a very decent airing. I just felt the need to explain our actions. I think some people had forgotten the role of a journalist in society. It was a matter of taste in what we released, but the notion of not reporting this was antithetical to us.

That same month, NBC found itself at the center of another story -- Imus' firing -- which you announced at the top of a broadcast and wrote about on your blog. Would you go back on his show if and when he returns to the airwaves? Have you been in touch with him?
I'll take that if it comes up and consider it at the time. I think we exchanged an email since his departure. I think we'll wait and see.

What Internet sites do you regularly check out?
MSNBC, Drudge Report and the New York Times.

Do you still answer all -- or most -- your viewer emails?

What do you consider your greatest success?
My family and achieving my wildest dreams professionally.

What's been your biggest disappointment?
Not working harder to enjoy the trappings of my life.

I know you're a NASCAR junkie. What's your dream ride?
I have a very fast Mustang GT that sometimes comes very close to a dream ride.

What's your fastest ever mph?
181 miles per hour at Talladega Superspeedway.

Where does your need for speed come from?
From taking apart engines and attending Friday night stock car races as a kid.

Do you have a motto?
Life's too short.

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the Lunch at Michael's column.

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