Three years ago, then-CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric fawned over Barack Obama: “You’re so confident, Mr. President, and so focused. Is your confidence ever shaken?” On ABC’s World News, Diane Sawyer often softens her interviews with the President by tossing in questions about college basketball, asking, at the start of the U.S. military operation against Libya last year, “How much do you think Kentucky will win by?”
But of the three evening news anchors, by far the most admiring of Obama is NBC’s Brian Williams who has — no big surprise — been rewarded with exclusive access to the White House Situation Room for what promises to be a prime time Obama campaign infomercial (on Wednesday’s Rock Center) on how the brave President monitored the mission as Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound and killed the terrorist mastermind exactly one year ago.
[FOLLOW-UP, May 4: "NBC's Williams In Awe of Obama's 'Even Keel' During Bin Laden Killing"]
Williams, on Sunday’s Meet the Press, announced ahead of time that he would not cloud the heroic story by focusing on Obama’s political motivations. “I think everything has to be viewed through the prism of election-year politics,” he admitted to Meet the Press moderator David Gregory, but “I’ll let others talk about motivation; that was not our cause in going in there.” But on Monday’s Nightly News, even Williams acknowledged that Obama’s heavy-handed self-promotion had caused “some political blowback.”
It’s no surprise that Obama turned to Brian Williams to help trumpet his message, as the face of NBC News has fawned over Barack Obama since the start of the 2008 presidential campaign. A review finds the NBC anchor has typically loaded up his interviews of Obama with politically-convenient softballs and few tough questions:
■ On the January 7, 2008 Nightly News, Williams handed Obama a copy of a Newsweek magazine with the then-candidate’s face on the cover, adorned with an Obama quote: “Our time for change has come.” Williams sounded like a campaign groupie: “On the bus ride along the snowy road to Lebanon, New Hampshire, I showed him this week’s Newsweek, hot off the presses. [to Obama] How does this feel, of all the honors that have come your way, all the publicity?...Who does it make you think of? Is there, is there a loved one?”
■ Sitting down with Obama again four months later, on the May 8, 2008 Nightly News, Williams didn’t trouble the candidate with a single challenging question, but pulled the same magazine stunt, this time holding up the new Time with a smiling Obama on the cover by the headline, “And the Winner* Is...”
Williams fondly recalled: “Last time we were together, I handed you a copy of Newsweek, it was the first time you’d held it in your hands with you on the cover. Have you yet held this [Time magazine cover declaring Obama the primary winner] in your hands?...Last time, you looked at it and you thought instantly of your mom.”
Obama replied: “She’d like that picture. She always encouraged me to smile more.”
■ On July 24, 2008, Brian Williams flew to Germany to help showcase Obama’s much-ballyhooed European campaign trip, trumpeting how “the first ever African-American running as presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party brought throngs of people into the center of Berlin, streaming into this city, surging to get close to him, to hear his message.”
Viewers next heard Williams ooze to Obama: “When an American politician comes to Berlin, we’ve had some iconic utterances in the past. We’ve had ‘Ich bin ein.’ We’ve had, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’....Is the phraseology that you would like remembered: ‘People of Berlin, people of the world, this is our moment, this is our time’?”
■ During the first week of June 2009, Brian Williams took over several hours of NBC’s prime time for his day spent tagging along inside the Obama White House. Even the liberal ex-Johnson White House press secretary Bill Moyers derided Williams as delivering a “candygram” and a “Valentine” to Obama: “President Obama couldn’t have asked for a sweeter salute...”
Williams fawned at the start: “The very idea of this man, this product of Kenya and Kansas, by way of Hawaii and Asia, as our 44th President is still so new, and he is so different from all the men who’ve gone before him. People react strongly to this President. We’ve seen people moved to tears after just the briefest encounter with him....”
He hit Obama with softballs: “Let’s talk about reaching a basketball-life balance. What are you going to do? Is there a plan for an indoor facility? Are you happy with your playing time these days? Is it where it should be?...Have you seen the depictions of you, Fred Armisen, Saturday Night Live? What do you think?”
The first hour concluded with Williams literally bowing to the President as he said goodbye: “Thank you, sir. Have a good evening.”
■ Interviewing Obama in New Orleans on in August 2010, Brian Williams treated Obama with a level of deference he didn’t afford to George W. Bush, casting Obama as a great oracle of wisdom to pluck. “Katrina was about so many things. It was about class and race and government and the environment,” Williams told Obama in the except aired on the NBC Nightly News, yearning for guidance: “Whatever happened to that national conversation we were supposed to have about it?”
Williams ended on a particularly sycophantic note: “Finally, I’m hoping to find you in a reflective mood on a cloudy day. We’re the first to speak to you coming off your summer vacation. How does it re-charge you? What do you think about? What do you see? What do you read about? How are you thinking about your job these days?”
■ In September 2011, a few days after he hit Republicans from the left when he moderated a presidential candidates’ debate on MSNBC, Williams pressed Obama with the concerns of the President’s left-wing supporters: “Members of your base are asking: ‘When are you going to get your Harry Truman on?’” and “What do you say to those Americans who voted for that man on the poster that said ‘Hope’?”
Incredibly, Williams never challenged Obama on his just-announced big-spending jobs bill beyond cuing him up: “Did you come to a decision that what the country needs is in large part a good old public works bill?” and he invited the President to deride the Tea Party as a negative influence on the debt ceiling talks.
On Obama’s Inauguration Day in 2009, Today show weatherman Al Roker confessed to Williams that, “it was a very emotional trip....I had tears in my eyes.” Williams, supposedly an objective newsman, seemed to admit that he, too, was carried away by emotion: “Al, I’d love to tell you that I have no idea what you’re talking about, that everybody here kept their emotions thoroughly in check during the ceremony, but I’d be lying to you, my friend.”
Going into the last six months of the crucial 2012 general election, the Democratic President will have the luxury of being interviewed by journalists who openly admire him and may have even wept at his inauguration. So much for fairness.