It's been over a week now since the Brian Williams brouhaha burst upon us.
Brian Williams is a friend. He began in journalism under the watchful eyes of some of the best minds and hearts in American journalism, including my stepfather Richard Salant, who ran CBS News for many years -- not coincidentally, probably its best years. Brian is one of TV's very best newsmen and anchors. Let's get all that on the table.
Here is the letter I want to write him:
Good reputations and strong values often mean big trouble when they are trifled with or violated.
You have landed in a huge, messy puddle of your own making. You are a champion of independent, fair, reliable journalism at its best in a moment in our country's history when that tradition, which you and I both love and support, is wobbling. You have been the best of the nightly news anchors, and the one the people in this country trusted the most. Your mild apology the other evening, when you said you'd "bungled" your reporting of the helicopter event as part of your efforts to "protect" brave servicemen, put it on a par with a baseball player making an error on a ground ball during a long season. Not good enough, my friend.
It wasn't enough because it looked like you were trying squirm out of the situation rather than confront it. All of us knew, even if you didn't then, that the issue had not been dealt with, that you were not ready for closure and the big job of getting ready to move beyond it.
In one way of scoring, what you did by misstating what happened on a helicopter trip over a decade ago is a minor piece of self-aggrandizement, the kind of embellishment that we often encounter in advanced cases of celebrity-itis.
But in another, more important way of counting, you have lied -- to a country and a people for whom you were an important living symbol of all that is best, most truthful, and most trustworthy in a public realm that has been debased and undermined by too many others. And to break the trust you created and earned is as serious as it gets.
Beyond that, the most serious problem -- the "helicopter under attack" business -- is in an area where it is important to identify clearly those who are in fact putting their lives on the line for our country; that is one important way in which we honor them. To group ourselves with them inaccurately -- much as we may want to support them -- is, in fact, a way of dishonoring them.
Now NBC, in a clumsy action, has suspended you for six months. Your mistake was not letting a ground ball through your legs, but it also was not breaking a rule in school that deserved suspension like a schoolboy. The organization that suspended you -- NBC News -- should be in the dock with you on this. They are a fundamental part of the "whole package" here. The sudden role of judge and jury does not easily become them.
There is one way forward -- only one; there is one step, and only one, that can lead back to a constructive path for you and back to the role the rest of us want you to assume and play again. And you now have some time in which to prepare it.
That way forward, that step, is to recognize what you have done, and to let all of us know you recognize it, deeply and powerfully. That way forward is to recognize, absorb and express the deep shame that must accompany these mistakes. That is a critical step to you knowing, and us trusting (there's that word again), that you will never do it again.
Tell us in your own words something along these lines:
"I address these words to my viewers, to my family, to my fellow Americans -- and most especially to all those who have extended to me their trust over the past years.
"I have abused that trust. I have described as fact in my own activities as a journalist some things that were untrue. That is one of the most serious wrongs a professional independent journalist can commit. I deeply regret it. I am deeply ashamed that I could stray so far from the values I believe in and the values you thought I exemplified.
"There is no action, no suspension, no fine or punishment as disgracing as terrible, as difficult as the action I take now: to come before you and admit I have been wrong, very wrong; to share with you the humiliation and the shame I have brought upon myself by being wrong; and to commit, before you, before my family, and before all who care about strong, independent journalism, that I will never allow anything like that to happen again. I pledge the rest of my journalistic career to making this terrible incident an exception, to working to regain your trust, and to exemplifying and following the highest principles of independent journalism, to which I am devoted and you are entitled.
"Please forgive me.
"And -- for those of you who can -- please extend your support as I begin now to build a new path forward."
I know, and you will discover, that Americans will respond to this with relief and respect -- and even affection. I will be among them, and Dick and Mom -- if they were here -- would be as well.
One of the essential characteristics of strong independent journalism is that it depends heavily on self-regulation, and self-monitoring of compliance with the principles it espouses. And thus there is only one person who can explain and set right this terrible incident.
And you know who that is, Brian.
With best wishes,