Brian Williams, Saint John Paul II, Charlton Heston, Kevin Bacon and, well, me

Remember that game that was so hot a few years ago, the whole "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" thing? One of the fun things about hanging out with experienced journalists is that you can play a similar game, based on who has interviewed who.

For example, as a religion writer I have interviewed Billy Graham. That puts me one degree of separation away from, what, half of the famous people in world culture in the second half of the 20th century? Or, in music, I have interviewed Dave Brubeck. Stop and think about that one, in terms of links to music royalty dating back into the early 20th century.

However, journalists do like to sweat the details.

For example, I have asked Tom Hanks a question in a live press conference. Is that the same thing as "meeting" Hanks? Perhaps you shook hands with the Archbishop of Canterbury and asked a quick question. Is that the same thing as "interviewing" him? How about a telephone interview with Robert Duvall? Twice? Is that the same as "meeting" him?

I attended the 1987 meeting between St. John Paul II and media leaders in Hollywood and greater Los Angeles, sneaking in with a pass from a Rocky Mountain News editor (a national officer in a press association) who was not able to attend. At the end, the pope moved down the aisle greeting people and shaking hands. I had a chance to shake his hand but, well, I let Charlton Heston get in front of me. You can't fight the voice of God, right? I did speak a greeting to the pope and he nodded. But is that "meeting" the pope?

Where am I going with this? To the latest wrinkles in the sad story of Brian Williams, of course.

The leaders off NBC News continue to dig into many of their star anchor's accounts of his work on their behalf and, yes, questions have continued to pop up. How can you watch the Berlin Wall come down if you arrived the day after that famous scene? Was it "still" coming down?

And then there is this, care of a CNN report (with a hat tip to the Newscasters team):

As a student at Catholic University, Williams was at the school when Pope John Paul II spoke at the Washington, D.C. campus in 1979. The anchor's account of the papal visit has varied over the years. 
In 2002, Williams was quoted as saying that he chipped in with the school's preparations as an employee in the campus public relations office. "I was there during the visit of the pope," Williams said. 
If he had any interaction with the pope, Williams didn't mention it then.

Uh oh. You just know where this is going and, literally, I have -- sort of -- been there.

But that changed in 2004, a year before the death of Pope John Paul II. While delivering the commencement address at Catholic University that year, Williams said the "highlight" of his time at the school "was in this very doorway, shaking hands with the Holy Father during his visit to this campus." 
After reporting the news of the pope's death in 2005, Williams said on-air that he was "thinking back to the first time I met him at Catholic University, I guess it's 25 years ago now." 
Days later, Williams provided a more colorful version of his meeting. 
"I have to begin with a beautiful day in 1979," Williams said in an interview published by NBC News. "I was a student at Catholic University, and over the course of two hours, chatted up a Secret Service agent who spilled like a cup of coffee and told me that the pope would be coming our way, straight up the steps of a side door at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I positioned myself and held out my hand and said, 'Welcome to Catholic University, Holy Father.' And he embraced my hand with both of his, made the sign of the cross, and said a blessing to me." 

So what really happened? Truth be told, we don't know if Williams "met" the pope, was blessed by the pope or whatever. 

Which leads me to my point, to any young journalists who happen to read this.

Williams started his career in the era before social media, but many of his words -- in the early multi-platform news era of MSNBC -- are stored somewhere on a hard drive. Now he is caught in a tsunami of news and social-media speculation, which is literally the spirit of our media age. Young journalists are now asked to fire away day after day, in every form of print, audio and video media imaginable, with smartphones surrounding them at almost every moment.

Get your stories. Take careful notes. And get your stories straight, folks. Be careful out there, now more than ever.

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