Who, or even whom, do you trust?
A) Brian Williams
B) Hillary Clinton
Both are important public figures. Both have been accused of deception. Both admit they made mistakes. Both now ask for your forgiveness and your trust.
But does either one deserve it?
On several occasions, Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News,” has said he was riding on a U.S. helicopter when it was forced down by enemy fire over Iraq in 2003.
This was not true, however. Crew members who had been aboard the downed helicopter got tired of hearing the story and told Stars and Stripes that Williams “was nowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire.”
Williams then made an oddly worded recantation. “I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” he said. “I don’t know what screw-up in my mind caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other. … I want to apologize.”
When Williams signed an extension of his contract in December — reportedly a five-year, $50 million deal — he was not terribly worried. The network had made a huge investment in him, and he would pay that back by continuing to earn the public’s trust.
On television, trust is a commodity. Find a news anchor whom viewers will trust and viewers will watch that person night after night. Sponsors like that. If people trust the anchors and trust their shows, maybe people will trust the products the sponsors are selling.
Some think news anchors are more powerful than elected officials because news anchors are not seen as having a partisan agenda. So people trust them even more.
And when Williams extended his contract for that dazzling amount of money, Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, said he was “one of the most trusted journalists of our time.”
True, NBC was forced to suspend Williams without pay for six months, a suspension that is due to expire in August.
But in the suspension announcement, Steve Burke, the CEO of NBCUniversal, said: “He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”
Trust. Trust. Trust. There was that word again.
But NBC has launched an investigation into other “embellishments” Williams may have made over the years, and according to one account, some members of the Washington bureau of NBC News have said they do not want him back as anchor because they do not trust him.
As a friend once told me about an ambitious colleague, “he doesn’t think he has to be nice to people when he is going up the ladder because he doesn’t intend ever to go back down the ladder.”
Down the ladder for Williams would be the loss of his anchor chair. For Hillary Clinton, it could mean the loss of the presidency.
There was her own helicopter ride in Bosnia in 1996. (I don’t know what it is about helicopter rides and fibbing. Maybe the vibrations scramble people’s brains.) In 2008, she said: “I certainly do remember that trip to Bosnia. … There was a saying around the White House that if a place was too small, too poor or too dangerous, the president couldn’t go, so send the first lady. … I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”
Uh … no. That never happened.
There was no threat of sniper fire at the airport during her visit. In fact, Clinton went through a reception line and took pictures with people. She never ran anyplace with her head down, because there were no snipers around firing at her.
Her public schedule indicates she was greeted by the president of Bosnia, the United States ambassador, two senior United States military officials, an 8-year-old girl and a seventh-grade class.
When the truth was revealed, Clinton was forced to say, “I misspoke.”
A minor matter, perhaps. But like the case with Williams, it raised questions about how much she could be trusted.
Today’s New Hillary is supposed to be “just plain folks.” She is not supposed to act as if she is “entitled” or is playing by a different set of rules.
But a recent editorial in The New York Times described a possibly hinky uranium deal in which the Clinton Foundation got a $2.35 million donation but did not publicly disclose it “even though Mrs. Clinton had signed an agreement with the Obama administration requiring the foundation to disclose all donors as a condition of her becoming secretary of state.”
“This failure,” the editorial said, “is an inexcusable violation of her pledge.”
And there have been other incidents — including Hillary’s hilarious claim that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House (they were multimillionaires) — that have chipped away at her truthiness.
The public is now judging both Clinton and Williams.
I began this column with a choice: Whom do you trust?
A) Brian Williams
B) Hillary Clinton
Maybe I should add:
C) None of the above
Roger Simon is Politico’s chief political columnist.