The buzz in DC media circles last week – and one that is still going strong – was the revelation that “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams was less than truthful about the dangers he faced in 2003 while covering the war in Iraq.
Williams – the most watched, and certainly one of the highest paid, news anchor in America – on Feb. 2 described being shot down during the invasion of Iraq. The piece was supposed to be a heartwarming tribute to an American soldier who had been with Williams on the day in question, March 24, 2003, in the Iraqi desert. The trouble – Williams wasn’t on the downed helicopter.
It wasn’t the first time he’s told the story. Williams had been offering versions of the story of his surviving a helicopter crash since 2003, much to the irritation of crew members of the two units who had encountered the correspondent that day.
Williams’ story was almost immediately challenged by the pilot of the downed helicopter the first time he told it, but NBC never responded to a request for a correction. It wasn’t until complaints were publicly posted on Facebook that reporters became interested and Williams issued an apology. (Transcript of Williams’ apology.)
The admission came after crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire told Stars and Stripes that the NBC anchor was nowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire. Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the other three had made an emergency landing, the crew members said. – Stars and Stripes Feb. 4 story.
Stars & Stripes audio of Feb. 4 interview with NBC’s Brian Williams.
And while public-relation professionals will tell you that the first thing to do in a crisis is apologize, Williams’ case proves an apology doesn’t always fix the problem – especially if the veracity of the apology itself is questioned.
In this case, Williams’ apology – which differed from the accounts of the soldiers on the mission with the anchor – prompted calls from military veterans for him to resign and sparked a flurry of activity on Twitter, under the hastag #BrianWilliamsMisremembers. (h/t NY Times.)
Instead, Williams had been in another Chinook coming from Camp Udairi. This one belonged to Company B of the 159th Aviation Regiment and was piloted by Chris Simeone. It was part of a four-bird flight of Chinooks. – The New York Times.
The whole incident raises questions not only about Williams’ credibility, but also the credibility of the entire NBC news organization. Williams is accused not of misremembering the facts of a story, but of lying to make himself appear more important – a clear violation of the public’s trust.
But for a journalist — and in particular, an anchor — to do so has struck many people in the news industry as a very different sort of offense. While most were unwilling to publicly criticize a colleague, few were persuaded by Mr. Williams’s explanation. – The New York Times.
The increasingly harsh tone of the media coverage prompted a retreat by Williams and NBC, which had initially booked Williams on “Late Night with David Letterman” for this coming Thursday to begin his public rehabilitation.
The thinking had been that Letterman can do a serious interview, and the show would be a high-profile, controlled way for Williams to clear the air. – Politico
NBC later canceled the “Late Night” spot, igniting speculation that Williams would soon resign or be asked to leave NBC. On Saturday, it was announced that Williams would not appear on NBC for “the next several days.”
An NBC News source told Politico that Williams would not appear because “NBC was unsure what the situation will be on Thursday, and because Williams didn’t feel he should keep a commitment to that appearance, when his return to ‘Nightly’ was still up in the air.”
Search for a defense of Williams now and you find… not exactly nothing, but commentaries that argue that news anchors are more celebrities than reporters – and no one is ever surprised when celebrities exaggerate their backstories.
Former ABC News President David Westin, in an interview with The Huffington Post on Feb. 9, tried to blame the news industry itself.
I think across the industry now, there is a tendency to try to build up our reporters into an important part of the story themselves. Instead of going out in dangerous circumstances and tell us what’s happening, they too often put themselves in the middle of the story. I think that is a bad thing – The Huffington Post.
The only flaw with that argument is that it’s a problem unique to television news – not the industry as a whole. Thousands of reporters – print, radio, and television – put themselves in harms way to gather news the world over on a daily basis and never glorify their own deeds in their stories.
CNN’s Reliable Sources program put on air a panel of media commentators to answer the question of whether Williams’ “memory mistakes” were a career-ending offense or just a bump in the road. The panel delivered a split verdict.
So far, NBC appears to be betting the public will forgive – and hopefully forget – the transgressions of their highly paid star anchor. Williams’ credibility among his fellow reporters may not so easily bounce back – especially among those who make their livings in conflict zones.
Politico mocks the response from Williams’ fellow talking heads.