News

The Story of Brian Williams’s Big Break Mostly Checks Out

We fact-checked it.
The photograph of Williams in this 1994 story was by Claudio Vazquez.

When Washingtonian profiled Brian Williams in 1994, the mythology of his rise was firmly in place: here was a “disciplined young man,” we wrote, someone who had been given a lucky break but otherwise paid his dues. He had been a volunteer fireman at his hometown, Middletown, New Jersey; had trained at a newsroom in the Midwest; had worked a low-level technical job before getting his big break in DC. He was unexceptional, and then he was NBC’s White House correspondent, widely expected to replace Tom Brokaw as the anchor of NBC Nightly News.

But Williams’s credibility plummeted in early February, when Stars and Stripes reported inaccuracies in a story he had told about coming under fire in Iraq. In 2003, Williams had said, an Army helicopter he was traveling in was forced down by ground fire; according to soldiers in the aircraft, Williams was actually traveling well behind the downed helicopter, and never came under fire. Williams had told the story at length to David Letterman in 2013, and repeated the story in a recent NBC segment that prompted the Stars and Stripes report.

NBC responded by handing Williams, who’s anchored Nightly News since Brokaw retired in 2004, a six-month suspension. It also began fact-checking Williams’s story; Washingtonian decided to do the same.

The turning point of Williams’s career, as he told Barbara Matusow in 1994 and in many interviews since then, was a behind-the-scenes job at WTTG-TV in Washington. Maury Povich, not yet a talk-show star, was in the anchor’s seat at Channel 5; Betty Endicott, one of the first female news directors in the country, led the news team.

When Williams arrived, apparently without an introduction, from the Midwest in 1983, the station had one opening: for a Chyron operator, typing the words seen on the lower-third of a TV screen during a newscast. He worked the job for one week, we reported, before Endicott made him a reporter. “We all kind of went, ‘Wow! Talk about moving up the ladder,’ ” his friend Bernie Smilovitz, a sports reporter at the station, told Matusow at the time.

Recounting the incident to MediabistroTV years later, Williams said Endicott’s decision “might have been the last gut call in television,” and, “these things don’t happen outside of Capra films.”

The Mediabistro interview, which was published in 2012 and kicked off a video series titled “My First Big Break,” repeated a part of the story that Williams told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. In this telling, Endicott, the news director, called him into her office one day and asked about his on-camera reporting experience. As he put it to Mediabistro, he told Endicott he had reported, but his small-market work was “a failed experiment.” His tapes had “long since been burned and taken to a licensed landfill outside of town.”

But then she asked him to name the worst reporter on staff. He hesitated, she insisted, and he offered a name, one he says he’s never repeated. Endicott, he said, agreed. After the station fired that reporter, Williams took his place. Until he temporarily stepped down for being “too much a part of the news,” and was formally handed his suspension by NBC, he had been on air ever since. Endicott, the only one who would be able to confirm that her closed-door conversation with the young Chyron operator ever took place, passed away in 1989. 

Minor discrepancies in that story had appeared over the years.

For instance, Williams told Washingtonian and the LA Times that, as the Times put it, “he walked over to the local Metromedia (now Fox) station, WTTG, and asked for any old job. He got it: as the weekend man on the machine that types in the titles over the news video.”

But in his interview with Mediabistro, Williams said he came to the station because he had seen a newspaper classified ad for a weekend Chyron operator. Ad in hand, he said, “I walked into the newsroom and said to the first person I met, ‘I’m here to meet with the news director, is he in?’ ” He was speaking to Endicott. She hired him personally, Williams said, and “I just Chyroned like hell wouldn’t have it.”

One reporter who worked alongside Williams but requested anonymity for this story remembers Williams working the Chyron machine—and for well over a week, contradicting what we had first reported.

And another reporter, who showed Williams around the station when he was first hired, remembers Williams as not only a Chyron operator, but the only Chyron operator who ever wore a coat and tie. That reporter was Jeff Hulbert. He says he is the man Williams replaced, and two other sources who worked at WTTG at the time agreed.

Hulbert had been hired just before Endicott arrived, and he got the impression that she was looking to shake things up. “I accepted that my days were numbered,” Hulbert says. “Every time I got hired to a TV station, my assumption was that I was better than the person who they let go or were replacing. I accepted as a law of the jungle that that was part of the deal.”

Hulbert also says he believes Williams’s connections at the National Association of Broadcasters, where he had worked before leaving to start his broadcasting career in Kansas (and where one of Hulbert’s uncles worked as a vice president), helped him get the WTTG job.

“I knew at the time that Brian Williams, by the way he dressed and by his manner, had been brought in to be given a reporter slot,” he says. “It was only a matter of time to find out which slot he was going to get—simply because in my whole career in television no Chyron operator ever dressed in a coat and tie like he did. That was a signal to everyone that he had been parked there.”

He says that after a series of disputes over his scriptwriting, Endicott fired him.

Chuck Woolsey, the assistant news director at the time, recalls Endicott saying that Hulbert “was on his way out” just before discussing her recent hire, Williams. Woolsey also wasn’t sure who the reporter was that Williams replaced, though he allowed that it might have been Hulbert.

Certainly, he says, “everyone knew that [Endicott] was going to give [Williams] air time.” (“Brian,” he continued, “was very bright. You only had to tell him once and explain things to him once. He was very eager, and he was very good.”)

Hulbert is no longer in the news business. A few weeks after leaving WTTG, he got a job acting in ABC’s George Washington miniseries, doubling as Lloyd Bridges in equestrian battle scenes. Since then he’s mostly worked as a DJ. He was, though, featured in a photo on the front page of the New York Times last October 17, at the height of Ebola panic. In it, he stands in front of the White House, wearing what looks like hazmat suit in front of the White House, with a placard that reads “STOP THE FLIGHTS!” Next to him, a tourist poses for a photo.

He and Williams were never close, he says. A couple of times he referred to details of Williams’s story—that he walked into WTTG without an appointment or reference, that he burned his audition tapes by the time Endicott asked to see one—as “fairy tales.” Still, he spoke highly of Williams as a reporter and says the two “were friendly enough to have a brief chit-chat” at Endicott’s funeral, in 1989. If Williams ever got a chance to go back on the air, Hulbert says, “I would still watch because he knows—and I know—that he would never get another chance to go back and cross his T’s and dot his I’s.”

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Harrison Smith

Harrison Smith (@harrisondsmith on Twitter) has contributed to the Washington Post and Chicago magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]