New York Times Hits Brian Williams For Going Soft on Snowden

Even critic Alessandra Stanley at The New York Times criticized NBC anchor Brian Williams for his servile interview with massive-leaker Edward Snowden in Russia.

“I miss Barbara Walters already,” she wrote, as if Barbara was the epitome of hardball interviews. “Brian Williams of NBC News did a good job of letting Edward J. Snowden say what he wanted to say. Someone a little nosier would surely have pressed the exiled National Security Agency leaker on what he held back.” Such as:

Is he being followed? Where does he live? Is he alone? Is he learning Russian? Who pays his bills, and do Russian women consider him a catch? Mr. Williams didn’t ask those questions, and he also didn’t follow up on some contestable assertions – at least not on the edited version shown Wednesday night.

In an interview in a Moscow hotel suite, Mr. Snowden had a chance to introduce himself to American viewers who have only seen his face fleetingly up until now. And he was eerily composed, well spoken and dispassionate.

One obvious question to Snowden that Williams should have asked if he was aiming to look like a professional journalist, was how Snowden could claim in a Christmas broadcast to England  that there is no privacy any more in America, and that it’s worse than George Orwell’s dystopian totalitarian regime in “1984.”

Even MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell lamented that “Every time he speaks, he says provably untrue things.” But NBC and Williams gave him an hour to lecture away.

Stanley added:

Mr. Snowden charged that the American government hasn’t released any concrete examples of how his revelations harmed national security or individuals. “If after a year they can’t show a single individual who’s been harmed in any way by this reporting, is it really so grave?”

But on Wednesday, he wasn’t pushed for specific examples where government surveillance had harmed a single American individual either.

Mr. Snowden spoke lucidly, without remorse or emotion, expressing himself politely and calmly, without an “um” or a “like.” He was so fluent it almost seemed acquired – like Eliza Doolittle, of whom Zoltan Karpathy said in “My Fair Lady, “Her English is too good, he said/which clearly indicates that she is foreign.”

There was a tinge of superiority to his tone, telling Mr. Williams when his questions were “fair” and answering others as impersonally as possible. At the end, Mr. Williams finally addressed Mr. Snowden’s private life, asking what it was like to move from Hawaii to Moscow. “You know, it’s — it is — a major cultural gap,” Mr. Snowden said coolly, flicking his hand like a wine connoisseur evaluating a vintage. “ And it requires adjustment.”


She gave Williams credit on the point of Russian backing: “Mr. Williams pressed him hard on whether he was helping the Putin government and didn’t get a satisfying answer. Mr. Snowden said he didn’t bring any classified documents with him to Russia and insisted that Russian intelligence wasn’t paying him, coercing him or relying on his expertise. But he’s been Russia’s house guest for almost a year, so it’s hard to believe he hasn’t been exhaustively debriefed or just soaked with endless vodka toasts.”

Howard Kurtz at Fox News said the Snowden program "worked quite well" as a personality profile, but "Brian Williams missed a golden opportunity."

I kept waiting for Williams to pin him down: You knew you were breaking the law, and now you don’t want to face the consequences of your actions? Do you think you should get to pick and choose which laws you follow? If you think this was a great act of conscience, why do you deserve to be let off scot-free?

In short, there never came a time when the anchor pressed the accused spy and tried to knock him off his talking points...

What’s noteworthy is that Williams sometimes added critical caveats taped after the interview. After an exchange in which Snowden was asked about leaking secret military information, Williams told the audience: “Just for clarification here, note that Snowden didn’t deny turning over military secrets. He asserted instead they wouldn’t be published.” Another way to handle that would have been to tell Snowden, “you didn’t answer my question.”

Williams clearly valued the access to Snowden more than getting answers. He gave Snowden an hour more than he's given any Republican lately.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis