In the age of Super PACs, the roll of the media as "watch dog" over political advertising will become even more important, Brian Williams, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, told an audience at in Somerville Monday.
Williams, speaking at the Seventh Annual Edward R. Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism, also talked about the upcoming presidential election, the state of network news, his reputation as a funny guy and his daughter, Allison Williams, who's making a name for herself as an actress on HBO and elsewhere.
Here's some of what Williams said:
Moderating presidential debates
Williams, who received criticism from Newt Gingrich when the NBC anchor told a Florida debate audience to remain quiet during the forum, defended his decision.
In previous debates, the audience's "hooping and hollering" took away six minutes of speaking time, he said.
"I chose, as I did before, to take the audience out of the game," he said.
Williams said moderating a live presidential debate is "as alert as you have to be in my job. It's a high wire act." If you make one mistake or chose one wrong word, it "can change the tenor" of the whole event, he said.
Williams said televised debates can be useful to Americans. If you're a candidate, "They look into your eyes. They decide if you're a nice guy … they make a judgement," he said. "We can always learn [by] watching someone on their feet."
On any criticism received, Williams said, "We are not in this occupation to get ticker tape parades."
"We still have a vital job to do in this democracy," he said.
Williams, speaking about Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential nominee for the Republican Party, said, "There's never been such a wide dichotomy" between a candidate's media image and how that candidate's friends and family perceive him. "It seems to have confounded people around him," Williams said.
Issues affecting the 2012 election
Williams said, "In politics, a week is a year, and so many things could rise up until then," speaking about the November presidential election.
Oil and gas prices and jobs will be "anticipatable" issues in the election, but "it's the un-anticipatables that often drive elections."
The state of network news
When asked about the state of the nightly network news in an age when consumers peruse the Internet for news, Williams said "I am that consumer."
"I will hit two dozen websites before I go to sleep tonight," he said.
Still, Williams believes big brand-name nightly news shows, like his, are trusted and important parts of American society. "We're like a public utility. We'll always be there," especially when major news events take place, he said.
Being a funny guy and news comedy shows
Williams cracked a number of jokes Monday, at one point eliciting a reaction from the crowd by poking fun at the Red Sox dismal beginning to the 2012 season. "I don't want to bring up baseball in this very sensitive time," he said.
Williams has also appeared in segments on comedy shows like Late Night with David Letterman, The Daily Show with John Stewart and 30 Rock.
"I think viewers in 2012 get it," he said, talking about their ability to acknowledge when he's having fun on a comedy show and when he's doing the serious job of running a nightly news program.
He joked that people shouldn't get their news from John Stewart before saying, "I get a lot of my news from John [Stewart]."
He said The Daily Show is "the best public service use of comedy."
Allison Williams, his HBO-actress daughter
Asked what it's like to have a famous daughter, Williams said, it feels very "natural" to anyone who knew her as a child and knew she enjoyed performing.
"We've known since she was an amoeba that she was going to be a performer," he said.
Edward R Murrow Forum on Issues in Journalism
Williams joined a list of other famous journalists who have spoken at the Tufts University forum. They include Ted Koppel, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric and Chris Matthews, among others.
Jonathan Tisch, co-chairman of the board of the Loews Corporation who is also an author and host of the TV series "Beyond the Board Room with Jonathan Tisch," led the discussion.