Holt, Williams Tamper with Clock, Time After Time

When Brian Williams anchored NBC’s “Nightly News,” he often rearranged the time; he would present a story about an event that happened hours earlier, even a day earlier, yet say it happened tonight. He used the word tonight so often, someone suggested that “Nightly News” be renamed “Tonightly News.”

If any viewers of the program are fond of hearing tonight, they may also become fond of the anchor sitting in for Williams: Lester Holt. He, too, likes to tonight stories, even some that are hours old. But Holt probably hasn’t said he writes the whole newscast. Williams, though, has said he himself wrote the whole shebang–every night. As we’ll see, that boast is toast.

Holt has been anchoring “Nightly News” while Williams takes a time-out. Let’s look at a few of Holt’s contrived scripts. On his 6:30 p.m. ET newscast of Feb. 13, he told viewers, “It’s been a wild week of drama in the state of Oregon, culminating tonight with the resignation of a four-term governor caught up in a scandal involving his fiancée.” Culminating tonight? Not true. The climax was late that morning (in Oregon), when the governor announced he would resign in five days. P.S. State of Oregon? I already knew that Oregon is a state.

Holt read his script on air more than three and a half hours after the governor’s announcement. AP reported the announcement at 2:57 p.m. ET. The Huffington Post posted the news at 3:01 p.m., the Washington Post at 3:09 p.m. “Nightly News” tweeted it at 3:25 p.m.—more than three hours before Holt misreported the news.

Culminate means to reach the highest point, to reach the end or the final result of something. It’s a $5 word that strikes me as too fancy for use in a newscast. In any case, it was the wrong word.

Another foul ball: on Feb. 24, Holt said, “Word from the Justice Department tonight that George Zimmerman will not face federal charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin during a confrontation back in 2012.” Word tonight? CBS News posted the story more than five hours earlier, at 1:15 p.m., and Huffington Post posted it at 1:32 p.m.

On Feb. 27, Holt said, “News tonight of an investigation into allegations of serious misconduct at the Federal Air Marshal Service.” But almost a full day earlier, at 6:27 p.m. ET, Feb. 26, PBS posted the story. The NBC correspondent who appeared on Holt’s newscast with that story credited (as did PBS) the Center for Investigative Reporting, but he added that the story was confirmed by NBC News. Don’t they always confirm such stories?

Today—the adverb, not the show—is treated by some anchors like a dirty word. In a 2013 classic, Holt, sitting in for Williams on “Nightly News,” said, “There’s word tonight of a major settlement between the N-F-L and thousands of former players who sued, accusing the N-F-L of concealing….” There’s word tonight? Eight hours earlier, at 10:28 a.m., ET, NBC News posted 105 words on the story.

Those are just four bogus tonight stories delivered by Holt à la Williams. Holt also figured in a book that featured Williams; Holt wrote the foreword. In that book, “Power Performance,” about multimedia, the authors asked Williams, “Do you write your own copy for “Nightly News”? Williams replied, in effect, yes—all the copy.

The authors of the book are Tony Silvia and Terry Anzur. Silvia is a journalism professor at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Anzur is a broadcasting talent coach. Both she and he previously worked as television reporters and anchors. Their book was published in 2011.

Williams’s answer to the authors’ question appears in Chapter 1. Ironically, it’s called “The Role of the Storyteller”:

“I am still forced to write my copy because I can’t read anything cold. I have almost a kind of dyslexia when it comes to reading someone else’s writing.

“It’s not that mine is better,” Williams went on, “but howcould they know what I was going to say? How could they possibly know how I was going to tell this story?

“I’m compelled to write and put everything in the broadcast in my own words….”

Although Williams spoke of writing the whole program, “Nightly News” has been employing two full-time writers to write the news. And in a pinch, a senior producer pitches in. If Williams wrote all his own copy, as he is quoted as saying, why would NBC employ two show writers?

Among Williams’s prize time shifts:

A Garuda jetliner made a hard landing in Jakarta and burst into flames. Twenty-one people were killed. Time in Indonesia: 7:14 a.m., March 7, 2008. We’re 12 hours behind, so the time here was 7:14 p.m. ET, March 6. Yet, the next night in this country, March 7, Williams said the accident happened today. That night, Williams was co-anchoring in Baghdad, which is eight hours ahead of ET. Thus, the time in Baghdad was 2:30 a.m., March 8.

So Williams’s use of today in Baghdad that night was beyond wrong.

Another Williams time shift, also a drastic one: “There’s word tonight a notorious Utah polygamist who’s been on the run and the F-B-I’s list of America’s most wanted has now been captured.” (Aug. 29, 2006) Sounds to me as though Williams is suggesting the story broke that night. But more than eight hours before that newscast, at 10:17 a.m. ET, the AP reported the capture took place the night before.

When Sir Edmund Hillary, the mountaineer, died in New Zealand about 9 a.m., Jan. 11, local time, the time in New York City was about 3 p.m., Jan. 10, 2008. In a tease that night, Williams said, “When ‘Nightly News’ continues here this Thursday night, the death this evening of one of the best-known explorers in the world.” He died at 3 p.m. This evening?

A more brazen fabrication is reported in my “Weighing Anchors” in an item titled “The Overnight Life of Brian.” On Saturday, April 2, 2005, in his newscast at 6:30 p.m. ET, he said: “There is other news tonight from Iraq, where insurgents attacked the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in western Baghdad. It happened at sundown. Sixty insurgents opened fire….”

Twenty-four hours later, Williams told his Sunday night audience (yes, he did both weekend nights): “But now to some of the other news of this day and an N-B-C News exclusive on that massive overnight attack on the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq….”

Overnight? Not only did Williams contradict what he had said 24 hours earlier, but he also misstated the time—and not for the first time. Reuters had moved a story from Baghdad at 2:47 p.m. ET, Saturday, saying the attack on Abu Ghraib began around 10 a.m. ET, Saturday. At 3:34 p.m. ET, the AP quoted a U.S. officer as saying the attack lasted about 40 minutes.

In the practice of journalism, which is in the realm of non-fiction, an attack that took place around 10 a.m. ET, Saturday, cannot be described honestly on Sunday night as an overnight attack.

Besides, what does an anchor mean when he says something happened overnight? That it happened after midnight? That it happened at night? That it lasted all night? And whose overnight, ours or theirs? Even when defined loosely, overnight cannot be properly applied to an event that happened 32 hours earlier.

We do use overnight elastically in certain idioms, such as overnight success. So maybe we could call that “Nightly News” presentation—and misrepresentation—an overnight failure. And also slap that label on all other “Nightly” deceptions.

© Mervin Block 2015