The Brian Williams saga has rekindled memories of a similar tragedy that unfolded here in the pages of the Arizona Republic 30 years ago.
The incident – also involving a fabricated military story – was high-profile and scandalous, took down a respected and powerful media leader and was a stark reminder then – as it is now – of just how fragile trust is and how quickly reputations can be destroyed, even ones built on decades of success.
Darrow “Duke” Tully, was publisher of the Arizona Republic and its afternoon sister paper, the Phoenix Gazette, from 1978 to 1985, the highlight of a 40-plus-year media career that in one afternoon came to a crashing halt.
Tully was more than just a newspaperman. Back in those days, anyone who bought ink by the barrel had access to leadership platforms not available to ordinary business citizens. And as publisher, Tully took full advantage of it. He was one of the city’s heavy hitters and was a community and business leader with great influence.
And he was considered a very good, progressive publisher, too.
But like Williams, apparently, he had a dark side.
Williams, who spent decades working his way up to anchoring the NBC nightly news and serving as its managing editor, is on the bench trying to ride out a fake story that we now know was less than truthful. Many of his other stories told over the years are being questioned, too. Critics say he will never be able to gain the trust of his audience.
Tully’s fabrication was more flagrant. He falsely claimed to be a colonel in the Air Force with service in the Korean and Vietnam wars. He attended functions dressed in full uniform. It was all a ruse.
Anyone in leadership, and especially one with his hand on the reins of a newspaper, makes his share of enemies along the way.
One of Tully’s was Tom Collins, the Maricopa County District Attorney who had been criticized after Republic stories detailed family trips he took at taxpayers’ expense. Collins had been investigating Tully’s claims of military services, discovered they were false and just before Christmas 1985 held a press conference to reveal it all.
Tully resigned immediately and that was the last time most anyone around town ever saw him. He moved on, and he died in 2010 in Florida.
Williams, on a national scale, and Tully, statewide, are dramatic examples of people with power and influence who for whatever means motivates them told stories that were untrue.
No doubt, fabrications abound on smaller scales that never are discovered, but if anything good comes from these high-profile misdeeds perhaps it’s to remind people how devastating the fallout can be, no matter what position they’re told on.
Truth is sacred and violating it at any level in any profession causes harm that can never be fully repaired.
Institutions can survive the misdeeds of fallen leaders – as long as they are no longer in the picture. The Republic went on to record many successful years right after the Tully debacle. (Disclosure: I served in several editing positions at the paper then, including managing editor.)
Seems to me that Williams would be doing the right thing for NBC – if not for the institution of journalism itself – if he were to make his 6-month suspension permanent and get on with building the next chapter in his life.