Brian Williams spoke with students Friday morning in a packed Tomlinson Theater with the type of familiarity expected only with that of close friends.
The “NBC Nightly News” anchor visited the university to receive the Lew Klein Excellence in the Media Award.
In addition to receiving the award and serving as guest speaker at the 14th Alumni in the Media Awards luncheon, Williams spent an hour answering questions in a free ticketed event open to Temple students.
In an interview with The Temple News prior to the Q&A session, Williams discussed his early career in Pittsburg, Kansas.
“I went out, and I was driving a news car from my station in Kansas,” Williams said. “My first story out there was about abandoned lead and zinc mines that hadn’t been capped. Kids were playing on the piles of rock effluent and falling in. It was a huge local issue, and I’ll never forget that. My writing wasn’t terribly good that first day, but the learning process is never over.”
Williams added that the writing process starts early in the day for his half-hour news segment each night.
“Starting at 2:30 [each] afternoon, I write the words that will show up in the teleprompter that I will speak from each night,” Williams said. “While we are on the air at 6:30 p.m., I will be writing for slightly later in the broadcast.”
On stage, in front of close to 400 students, Williams appeared relaxed, talkative, and eager to answer the questions students posed to him.
The Middletown, New Jersey-native poignantly reflected on his most difficult assignment: covering Hurricane Katrina.
“Katrina brought up issues such as race, environment, energy and equality, or lack of it, that are still there today,” Williams said. “I go back down there a lot. New Orleans and the people of the Gulf Coast have really wrapped their arms around me. I think we have made 17 trips back since the storm with our broadcast in tow.”
Many students in the audience admired Williams for his respect for the tragedy.
“I was most surprised by how affected Brian Williams was, and still is, about the time he spent reporting on Hurricane Katrina,” Morgan O’Donnell, a freshman journalism major, said. “I had no idea that he was so dedicated and emotionally connected to the people of New Orleans, as well as forever marked by the ‘unspeakable’ things he said he witnessed.”
The mood lightened when a student approached Williams, a self-professed dog lover, about his views on cats.
“This comes up from time to time,” Williams said, drawing laughter from the crowd. “It’s controversial. I’ll put it this way, [dogs] are generators of love. Cats are as likely to be on top of the refrigerator when you come home, and maybe decide seven hours later to look at you. It’s that selfless love that you get from a dog.”
Williams explained, in a more serious tone, that while content in a half-hour news segment devoted to lighter material might be incremental in the larger picture, it plays an important role. He noted that the top of every newscast is often devoted to grim news, and “elective material” provides the relief so many viewers look for in a broadcast.
The broadcaster and journalist provided students with valuable insight into his daily life.
SMC student student Ryan Wallen wants to be a sports broadcaster upon graduation from Temple.
“I think I can take the fact that writing will be an essential factor in furthering my education here at Temple and applying it to my future careers,” Wallen, a freshman journalism major said. “I also believe I will take away Mr. Williams’ humbleness toward his profession and his determination. Hearing him speak, I can truly see he is grateful for the prestigious position he has achieved, and not only maintains his celebrity lifestyle, but is a family-man first.”
Williams kept the crowd engaged throughout the hour-long conversation. He shared stories from his appearances on 30 Rock, relationships with numerous late-night talk show hosts, and affinity for Jim’s Steaks on South Street. Williams’ authenticity and genuine love for broadcasting and journalism was prevalent throughout the discussion.
“I thought it went great,” said Max Blake, a freshman studying Media Studies & Production. “It was really cool to see such an icon be so approachable and connect with students. He was able to answer all sorts of questions and had such a great sense of humor. It seemed like he was really excited to win the award.”
Later in the afternoon, Williams, along with seven alumni of the School of Media and Communication, were honored with awards recognizing their achievements in media in the Philadelphia region and beyond.
Williams joins a long line of distinguished honorees who have received Klein’s Excellence in the Media Award.
Tim Mulhern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org