The Face of the Nightly News

NBC anchor Brian Williams spoke at Tufts on politics, Hurricane Katrina and the role of daily news in society
Brian Williams at Tufts
“It’s as alert as you have to be in my job—it’s a high-wire act,” said Brian Williams of his two stints as moderator of Republican presidential primaries this year. Photo: Kelvin Ma
April 25, 2012

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Like a charming guest at a dinner party, NBC news anchor Brian Williams regaled a full house at Tufts University on April 23 with anecdotes, humor and some advice at the seventh annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism.

In a conversational and informal style peppered with brief stories, Williams dipped into an array of topics, from why he never finished college to what President George W. Bush said to him after Hurricane Katrina. And he talked about trying to ensure that his news audience learns more about what he described as a dangerous and complicated world. “You write your news report every night and you have to consider what your responsibilities are to yourself, to NBC News and to the American people. I try to assemble a compelling mix of stories that depict what happened in a given day.”

Williams answered questions from moderator Jonathan Tisch, A76, a university trustee who is co-chair of the board of Loews Corp. and chairman and CEO of Loews Hotels. 

Williams moderated two Republican debates this year and talked about the pressures of the position. “It’s as alert as you have to be in my job—it’s a high-wire act,” he said. “Live-debate moderating, when done well, is an art form; you recede into the background and don’t become the story.” Having the debates is crucial to keep the electorate informed, he said, because they offer a chance to see the candidates close up. “TV is a lot like an MRI—it can see through to the soul.”

He also talked about covering Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for which he won a George Foster Peabody Award. It was a profound experience, he said, where he saw firsthand the misery and devastation of people who came to the Superdome in New Orleans, as directed, to find safety. Instead they found chaos.

After the hurricane, Williams had the opportunity to interview President George W. Bush aboard Air Force One. He asked whether the government’s response would have been the same if Katrina had hit tony Nantucket Island instead. He said the president told him, “ ‘I’ve been called a lot of things, but I won’t be called a racist.’ It was a tense and dicey time.”

Tisch asked Williams if there have been objections to his numerous appearances on talk shows hosted by the likes of David Letterman, Jay Leno and Jon Stewart, and if he thought those guest stints compromised his credibility. Williams acknowledged that the nightly news is a “pretty serious enterprise” but said that “if I have a chance to have a little fun, I think it’s OK… I think the viewers get it.”

Given his high-visibility position as a news anchor, it’s all the more surprising to learn that Williams never finished college. He explained that he had amassed 18 credits at three schools, running up $28,000 in student loans in the process and ultimately dropping out because he ran out of funds. “My mother always said we were long on aspiration but short on money,” he said. Speaking at Tufts, he said, was an emotional experience, since it is the school where his mother had hoped he would go. “Not having a degree is not a source of great pride,” said Williams. “It’s probably the number-one screwup in my life.”

Reflecting on how his own career evolved, he said, “I take it as a tremendous blessing as a kid who grew up watching three channels in black and white to have the job I have. You’ll never hear from anyone who lived a more fortunate life.”

Marjorie Howard can be reached at marjorie.howard@tufts.edu.