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The Psychology of Brian Williams

NBC Williams's tall stories follow a standard format. What is their purpose?

Brian Williams, the ambitious and successful NBC Nightly News anchor (for which he also served as managing editor) had reached the pinnacle of success. He was the most watched nightly news reader, and the most viewed and trusted person in American mass media, as well as being critically acclaimed for his role:

Brian Williams is seen by more U.S. television viewers on a daily basis than any other individual. Since taking over as anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News in 2004, he has strengthened the broadcast's position as the most-watched newscast in all of television and has become the most highly decorated evening news anchor of the modern era. He has received eleven Edward R. Murrow Awards, twelve Emmy Awards, the duPont-Columbia University Award, the Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Journalism and the industry’s highest honor, the George Foster Peabody Award.

He has now been suspended from that job, and many observers expect that he will never return to it, due to a series of tall tales he has told about his role in the events he covered. Indeed, he seems to have been telling such stories throughout his life, or at least he now tells stories about such events occurring throughout his life. For example, he says that in the late 1970s he was robbed at gunpoint selling Christmas trees in front of a church in Red Bank, New Jersey (he told this version in 2008):

"I even sold Christmas trees out of the back of a truck in Red Bank. That wasn't a bad job, until a guy came up and stuck a .38-caliber pistol in my face and made me hand over all the money. Merry Christmas, right? Of course, I suddenly appreciated the other jobs I thought I hated."

This story actually encapsulates everything about all the additional stories Williams has told—his helicopter being shot down, embedding with SEAL Team 6, even watching the Berlin Wall fall and meeting the Pope at Catholic University in 1979.

All of this, of course, started with his fable about being shot down in the desert:

“We were in some helicopters. What we didn’t know was we were north of the invasion. We were the northern-most Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the Third Infantry could cross on them. Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in. RPG and AK-47.”

Here are the elements of the story:

  • Williams personally encounters physical danger or some other noteworthy or extraordinary event.
  • One element in Williams' stories is to identify the military hardware involved as though he were intimately familiar with them: the 38 in the xmas tree caper, on Letterman he describes the "Chinook shot down by RPG and AK-47," "birds landing in the desert," how "he was rescued by Bradley fighting machines," and so on.
  • While he was in extreme danger, he laughs it off with a joke that conveys that he's really not a hero, telling the wildly applauding Letterman audience, “Oh don’t think any differently of me. . . trying to get close to these fantastic volunteers. . .I came away with more respect for these men and women.”
  • His modesty is actually a way of expressing the opposite—self aggrandizement under the cover of claiming he's a coward or amateur next to the real heroes to whom he pays tribute: "brave men and women" is a mantra of Williams's, while he called himself “the Herb Shmendrik of war correspondents” on Letterman when compared with intrepid NBC war correspondent Richard Engel.
  • Nonetheless, he uses "we" in his stories—as in "we were on a mission"—as though he were fighting in the war, especially when he kept claiming on Letterman that they were far beyond enemy lines ("unpoliced territory") and he had to be rescued by a tank corps (his telling of this tall tale on Letterman is the most notable example of the full Williams treatment).
  • He reports that he is beloved by those he works with in his exploits—the most notable, and preposterous, example of which is: "About six weeks after the Bin Laden raid, I got a white envelope and in it was a thank-you note, unsigned. And in it was a piece of the fuselage of the blown-up Black Hawk in that courtyard. Sent to me by one of my friends."

What is this all about, the lying about specific events, the subterfuge in claiming life-threatening exploits, his popularity with the "brave men and women" to whom he always bows? It's an example of a perennial insecurity about not playing on the football team in high school but wishing he had been as masculine as those who did that I described in writing about the dangers of big boobs.

There is only one thing that trumps big boobs in its appeal to the animal male mind of our species. No, not money. Male athletic prowess. Marilyn Monroe described how, the first time she went out to dinner with Joe DiMaggio, the biggest sports star of the era, it dawned on her that the men at the table were not making fools of themselves over her, as they usually did—they were fawning all over Joltin' Joe!

And when Mark Messier brought down the house at the MTV awards after captaining the New York Rangers' first Stanley Cup win after a 54 year drought, I noted:

For those of you who don't know, record executives are small, formerly scrawny—now pot-bellied—men who couldn't make their high school sports teams, and who compensated by making millions in the music business. Every one of them would trade in every dollar to have won a letter from their high school, let alone to star on the team, let alone to be a professional sports star.

One never overcomes this failure to meet the highest levels of male machismo performance, no matter how great one's achievements and acquired plaudits.

Stanton Peele has been at the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His recent book, written (with Ilse Thompson), is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. He can be found online on Facebook and Twitter.

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