Piers Morgan: Critics Want Williams Executed! Could Cronkite Survive This Kind of Scrutiny?

Ex-CNN host Piers Morgan is the latest journalist with a history of black marks (Dan Rather, Geraldo Rivera) to come to the defense of Brian Williams. In Monday’s online edition of the Daily Mail, the fired host of Piers Morgan Live sarcastically wrote Williams’ critics wouldn’t be satisfied until he was: “feathered, tarred, dragged through the streets of New York to Times Square, and stoned to death.” Morgan also wondered how former CBS newsman Walter Cronkite would “have fared under the intense scrutiny of today?” 

Morgan also revealed he reached out to Williams: “I emailed Brian some words of support as the scandal exploded. He replied yesterday, in a manner so heartfelt and agonizing that it moved me hugely to read it. I won’t reveal the contents of our conversation, but I will say that nobody should doubt the magnitude of both his sincere remorse at what has happened and his determination to put it right. He also said something specific in one of the emails that made me believe him when he says this was not a wilful attempt at self-aggrandizing.”

And while Morgan admitted there was “no journalistic defence” for what Williams did, he spent most of the column making excuses for him, pleaded for a second chance and ultimately concluded: “Brian Williams, I’m sure, will never embellish a story again, nor I suspect put himself in the middle of it. He will, if he is allowed, be a better reporter and anchor as a result of what he is now going through. In fact, ironically, Brian Williams is now the news anchor I would trust most on American television.” 

The following excerpts are from Morgan’s  February 9 Daily Mail column headlined: “Do we want to tar and feather Brian Williams or let him be the BETTER journalist this ‘scandal’ will make him? And trust me, I’ve been there.” 

Morgan on Williams’ critics: 

Execute Brian Williams. The only logical solution to the frenzied reaction to the NBC news anchor's public admission of a mistake is for him to be feathered, tarred, dragged through the streets of New York to Times Square, and stoned to death. Even then, I doubt his most ferocious critics, especially in the brutal slaughterhouse of social media, would be sated. They’d want to see his bones removed, sawn into pieces and hurled into the Hudson river.

We’ve become a world of Henry VIIIs, screaming ‘Off with their head!’ whenever a public figure trips up. Politicians, celebrities, sportsmen or news anchors – they’re all tossed onto the furnace of righteous, indignant fury at the slightest suggestion they may not be as perfect as we’d like them to be. Spend a day on Twitter or Facebook and you’ll see a constant whirring torrent of abusive demands for people to lose their jobs. It’s got ridiculous, and I don’t absolve myself from any personal responsibility for this epidemic. I can be emotionally hyperbolic about people’s careers, especially when it comes to sport.

Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather comparisons

Walter Cronkite is held up as the gold standard of TV news anchormen, and he was undeniably a great, fearless man, especially over Vietnam. But how would he have fared under the intense scrutiny of today? A recent biography about Cronkite revealed he enjoyed numerous freebies including flights to glamorous vacation spots around the world for his friends and family. He also, reportedly, dined with go-go dancers and bugged a committee room at a GOP convention. Imagine what Twitter would have made of all that? Cronkite was lucky he reigned on the airwaves when platforms for public gossip and mockery barely existed.

Another legendary newsman, Dan Rather, saw his long, distinguished career at CBS abruptly end amid a storm of protest over a false report on President George W Bush’s war record. I interviewed Dan many times at CNN and he struck me as one of the wisest, most decent journalists I have ever met. Was it right or fair to throw him to the wolves for dropping his first major clanger? To make him a figure of fun and humiliation? I don’t think so.

Morgan briefly criticizes Williams and then starts making excuses for him: 

Brian Williams inventing stories? About his war experiences? Unthinkable. But it’s true. He did. Or rather, wildly exaggerated them. And there is no journalistic defence for it, so I won’t try and make one. Other than to say that having heard the accounts of the various pilots involved in the original incident – two of them were interviewed on CNN’s Reliable Sources show yesterday, including the one who flew Williams – it remains quite possible Brian and his NBC crew genuinely feared they were being attacked.

Williams carries an authority and charm and is one of the most liked and respected journalists in America. It’s also an undeniable fact that he was on a helicopter on the front line of the Iraq War. And that, alone, marks him out to me as an extremely courageous reporter.

As for the other allegations now pouring in against him, from his reporting in Katrina (How does he or anyone else prove whether he saw a dead body in the water or not?) to his work as a New Jersey fire-fighter (Did he save ONE cat or TWO??? The public demands to be told the truth!), I’ve seen no hard evidence that he fabricated anything. This morning, he was accused of hyping another helicopter story from Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006. But when I read it, the details of the accusation seemed vindictively petty.

On reaching out to Williams: 

Perhaps it will still emerge that Brian Williams is indeed a deliberate serial liar who made up all sorts of stories, but I very much doubt it. I emailed Brian some words of support as the scandal exploded. He replied yesterday, in a manner so heartfelt and agonizing that it moved me hugely to read it. I won’t reveal the contents of our conversation, but I will say that nobody should doubt the magnitude of both his sincere remorse at what has happened and his determination to put it right. He also said something specific in one of the emails that made me believe him when he says this was not a wilful attempt at self-aggrandizing.

But regardless of whether you believe him or not, we surely need to get a collective grip and gain some perspective on all this. Brian Williams didn’t kill anyone. He skewed a story about his experience in Iraq which made him sound a bit closer to the action and therefore more heroic than he actually was. It was untrue, and wrong of him to do it, but why should it be terminally so?

America is supposed to be the great land of the 2nd chance; a country which welcomes all-comers from around the world who seek reinvention, redemption, a new start. Well, where is Brian Williams’ 2nd chance? He has anchored the Nightly News for a decade without a whisper of scandal at his conduct either on screen or off it. And he’s been very successful at it, which is why his show is the most watched news show in America.

Morgan admits his own scandal and then pleads for Williams’ job:

I had some personal experience of this vicious dog-eat-dog scenario when I was fired as editor of UK newspaper Daily Mirror in 2004 for publishing supposedly fake photos of British troops abusing Iraqis. (I say ‘supposedly’ because I’ve never seen incontrovertible truth either way about their veracity, the incident they depicted has never been denied, and one of the soldiers we accused was later jailed for the abuse he perpetrated). It was a very high profile scandal and many – including a lot of my Fleet Street colleagues, whose own peccadillos would have made for delightfully scandalous reading - reveled in my ignominious downfall. The experience was bruising yet character-building, and the old cliché about finding out who your real friends are rang loud and true – as I’m sure Brian is now discovering.

One thing I know for sure is that if I’d survived, I’d have been a far better editor. One who exercised even more care and caution in similar situations. Brian Williams, I’m sure, will never embellish a story again, nor I suspect put himself in the middle of it. He will, if he is allowed, be a better reporter and anchor as a result of what he is now going through. 

In fact, ironically, Brian Williams is now the news anchor I would trust most on American television. I share the dismay that he failed us. I hope he keeps his job.

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