For more than a decade, NBC News anchor Brian Williams told a grand tale to his viewers, interviewers, and talk-show hosts about riding in an Army helicopter over occupied Baghdad when it was struck and forced to land by a rocket-propelled grenade. Earlier this week, after the helicopter’s crew members told Stars & Stripes that Williams was in a completely different aircraft that was not struck by anything, he admitted his story was a complete fabrication. The anchor framed this particular fuck-up as anomalous, but a barrage of new reports suggest exactly the opposite: That even his apology is tainted with misinformation. You are likely watching the slow implosion of a universally popular newsman’s 34-year career.
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found mu [sic] OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area—and the fog of memory over 12 years—made me conflate the two, and I apologize. ... Nobody’s trying to steal anyone's valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty.
He also apologized on that night’s episode of Nightly News, a show for which he serves as managing editor. In each case Williams asserted that he had simply misremembered which aircraft, in a formation of three Chinooks, had been carrying him over Iraq when one of them encountered enemy fire—that he was close to, but not physically located within, the helicopter hit by an RPG.
The central problem with this account is that, according to multiple crew members riding with Williams, the aircraft carrying him was not part of, or even near, the trio of helicopters that did withstand fire on the same day in March 2003. Williams’ Chinook was forced to land that day, but only due to a sandstorm—not proximate enemy fire.
If this were an innocent, isolated falsehood, it would be fairly easy for Williams to correct his mistake, take his punches, and move on. But this falsehood does not seem innocent or isolated. As S.P. Sullivan at the Star-Ledger demonstrates, the anchor’s story—which was already embellished—grew even more embellished over the years. In his initial report for NBC News, for example, Williams said “the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.” Almost exactly ten years later, however, he told David Letterman that “two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.” And remember: Neither of these accounts are accurate, either. He was not in or near a helicopter that took fire.
Even worse: The present crew members noticed the discrepancies in Williams’ account all the way back in 2003, and attempted to alert news outlets who had set up shop in Kuwait. Three of those crew members spoke to The New York Times:
Joe Summerlin, who was on the helicopter that was forced down, said in an interview that he and some of his fellow crew watched Mr. Williams’s initial story and were angered by his characterization of the events. ... His account is supported by two of the pilots of Mr. Williams’s own helicopter, Christopher Simeone and Allan Kelly, who said in an interview that they did not recall their convoy of helicopters coming under fire. After the initial piece aired on NBC in 2003, Mr. Summerlin and his crew went looking for reporters on their base in Kuwait to tell them about the inaccuracies in Mr. Williams's reporting. Instead, they wound up leaving notes in several news vans encouraging them to get in touch. Years later, they were still frustrated by Mr. Williams’s recounting.
“When he was on the air on the Letterman show, I was going crazy,” Mr. Simeone said. “I was thinking ‘This guy is such a liar and everyone believes it.’”
(Another crew member, Rich Krell, initially supported Williams’ version of the helicopter incident. He later recanted in an interview with CNN’s Brian Stelter: “The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories.”)
It is worth pointing out here that Williams does not possess a reputation for getting things so wrong, or inflating the danger that his job places him in. But that reputation is already undergoing a wider review. Last night, Charles C. Johnson—of all people!—flagged a 2006 interview in which Williams describes noticing a rotting corpse float by his hotel window in the flooded French Quarter of New Orleans shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. The issue here, Johnson notes, is that the French Quarter suffered very little flooding from Katrina. His report has already inspired fresh scrutiny by the New Orleans Advocate, Salon, Yahoo! News, and USA Today. (After this post was published, a different Charles Johnson pointed us to another Advocate story showing that the area around Williams’ hotel was in fact flooded at one point, though it’s unclear exactly when.)
Williams’ employer is reviewing his work as well. Today the New York Daily News and Page Six reported that NBC News has launched an internal investigation into Williams’ past reporting, including his work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. What impact that investigation will have, though, remains unclear. Calling it a “no-win situation,” one NBC source told Page Six: “The news division has to publicly stand by Brian because there is no heir apparent to take over at Nightly News if he takes a break.”
It’s difficult to say what will happen to Williams, because the case is so clear and the stakes are so high. Most cases of journalistic fabrication do not involve journalists who are paid $10 million per year and serve as the public face of their company. And rarely is the motivation to fabricate so obvious. Remember Stephen Glass? Jayson Blair? There’s no simple explanation for their sins. Williams is different. The sheer scale of his Iraq fabrication—told in different forms over the course of nearly 12 years—can only be explained by the immense benefits, in image and reputation, that Williams and NBC News drew from its retelling. And unlike a lot of war stories, this was one its hero loved to tell.