NEW YORK—Brian Williams said the months since his suspension from NBC News had been like torture, and a come-clean interview with colleague Matt Lauer on the “Today” show must surely have felt like an extension.
The humbled anchorman told Lauer in an interview that aired Friday that he let his ego get the better of him in telling stories that exaggerated his role in news reporting and that he intends to make the most of his second chance. But he admitted he had trouble accepting his punishment — being stripped of his job as “Nightly News” anchor and assigned to reporting news at MSNBC — although he’s now come to terms with it.
By the end of Friday’s televised portion of the interview, a line of perspiration ran down Williams’ face.
He said he was always careful with his words on the job, but “after work, when I got out of that building, when I got out of that realm, I used a double standard. Something changed. I was sloppier. I said things that weren’t true.”
He was suspended for falsely saying that a helicopter he flew in while reporting on the Iraq War in 2003 had been hit by enemy fire, although a subsequent NBC investigation turned up other incidents of embellishment, most during talk show appearances. NBC hasn’t released its internal report on what it found, and Williams declined to address other incidents in the interview.
On the Iraq incident, he noted: “I told that story correctly for years before I told it incorrectly. I was not trying to mislead people. That to me is a huge difference.”
Asked by Lauer whether he knew when he told the story on “Nightly News” that it was untrue, Williams said no. “It came from a bad place,” he said. “It came from a sloppy choice of words. I told stories that were not true over the years, looking back it is very clear. I never intended to. It got mixed up. It just turned around in my mind.”
He said he had to have been driven by ego. “I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else, put myself closer to the action,” he said.
Why he felt the need to do that is something he’s been analyzing. Williams did not say whether he has sought professional help in finding the root causes of his actions.
“It looked like he was made to get up before he had to walk the plank. I feel for the guy,” said Jason Maloni, an expert in crisis PR at Levick Strategic Communications. Maloni said he believed NBC will regret taking a man with a clear connection to viewers off “Nightly News.”
“I could see clearly the lines he felt he needed to say — I own this, and it was my ego — but I could also see lines where deep down inside himself he felt a little attacked.”
Williams, who starts his new role at MSNBC in August, said that he is “fully aware of the second chance that I’ve been given and I don’t intend to squander it.” He said he’d go door-to-door if he could to win back the trust of viewers.
He also acknowledged that he “pushed back at first” at his punishment. He expressed support for Lester Holt, who filled in during Williams’ suspension and on Thursday was named the permanent new anchor of “Nightly News.”
“Was it my first choice? No,” he said. “Obviously I wanted to return to my old job. I thought we had a good 10-year run.”
He had some tough reviews for his Friday performance. David Hinckley, in the New York Daily News, said Williams “buried his remorse under so many evasive responses, so much tortured jargon” that it sounded like he’s still trying to process what happened to him.
“It was a tortured mea culpa that didn’t close a chapter,” wrote Alessandra Stanley in The New York Times. “Mostly it raised more questions and gave hardened media scolds another chance to castigate a man who has been punished plenty.”
A presidential candidate even offered advice on Twitter. “Very sad,” tweeted Donald Trump. “Brian should get on with a new life and not start all over at MSNBC.”