For years, Brian Williams had been telling a story that was not true. On Wednesday night, he took to his anchor chair on “NBC Nightly News” to apologize for misleading the public.
On Thursday, his real problems started.
A host of military veterans and pundits came forward on television and social media, challenging Williams’ assertion that he had made an innocent mistake when he spoke, on several occasions, about having been in a U.S. military helicopter forced down by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. Some went so far as to call for his resignation.
In his apology, Williams said that he had been on a different helicopter, behind the one that had taken fire, and that he had inadvertently “conflated” the two. The explanation earned him not only widespread criticism on radio and TV talk shows, but widespread ridicule on Twitter, under the hashtag “#BrianWilliamsMisremembers.”
A Fox News analyst, Howard Kurtz, said, “The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else.” On CNN’s “New Day,” host Chris Cuomo said that attributing the lie to “the fog of war” was not acceptable and the Internet would “eat him alive.” Rem Rieder, a USA Today media columnist, wrote, “It’s hard to see how Williams gets past this, and how he survives as the face of NBC News.”
It is unclear at this point whether Williams will feel compelled to speak again to the issue. What is clear is that the trustworthiness of one of America’s best-known and most revered TV journalists has been damaged, and that the moral authority of the nightly network news anchor, already diminished in the modern media era, has been dealt another blow.
Williams first reported on the episode when it happened in 2003, though the current controversy erupted last week after he spoke about it on air during a tribute to a retired soldier. Some veterans took to Facebook to complain, and a reporter at the military newspaper Stars and Stripes picked up the thread.
In fact, some of the soldiers present in Iraq that day had been quietly fuming about Williams’ reporting for years, and had even tried to alert the news media to it earlier. Joe Summerlin, who was on the helicopter that was forced down, said in an interview that he and some of his fellow crew watched Williams’ initial story and were angered by his characterization of the events.
Summerlin said that Williams’ helicopter was part of a different mission and at least 30 minutes behind theirs. His account is supported by two of the pilots of Williams’ own helicopter, Christopher Simeone and Allan Kelly, who said in an interview that their convoy of helicopters did not come under fire.
The account that Williams told of the episode evolved over the years, with his personal involvement gradually growing more perilous. In a 2003 segment on NBC that described it as “a close call in the skies over Iraq,” Williams said, “the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.”
In 2013, Williams told David Letterman that he had actually been on the helicopter that got shot down, adding that a crew member had been injured and received a medal. “We figured out how to land safely,” he said, “we landed very quickly and hard. We were stuck, four birds in the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans.”
And on the “Nightly News” last week, he described “a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG,” a reference to a rocket-propelled grenade.
After the initial piece aired on NBC in 2003, Summerlin and his crew went looking for reporters on their base in Kuwait to tell them about the inaccuracies in Williams’ reporting. Instead, they wound up leaving notes in several news vans encouraging them to get in touch.
Years later, they were still frustrated by Williams’ recounting. “When he was on the air on the Letterman show, I was going crazy,” Simeone said. “I was thinking ‘This guy is such a liar and everyone believes it.’”
On Thursday, yet another pilot, Rich Krell, gave a different account, telling CNN that he had in fact flown Williams, and their helicopter had come under attack. Simeone and Kelly strongly disputed Krell’s account.
NBC has not commented on the controversy, either to support Williams or to clarify the details of the episode, nor did they make him available for comment. It is also not clear if other people at NBC were aware that Williams’ version of the events was inaccurate.
It is not unprecedented for a public figure to exaggerate his or her experiences, especially when it comes to military conflict. In 2008, then presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged that she had misspoken when she described having to run across a tarmac to avoid sniper fire after landing in Bosnia as first lady in 1996. While running for Senate in 2010, Connecticut’s attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam.
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 Williams’ explanation.
“My inbox is filled today with producers who went to Iraq with me, to Afghanistan with me, to Haiti with me, all kind of wondering how you could mess this up,” said Aaron Brown, a former anchor for CNN. “I have no answer for that. I will tell you that getting shot at is not something you forget.”
Williams just extended his contract with NBC in December, with the terms reported to be as much as $10 million a year for five years. At the time, Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, called him one of “the most trusted journalists of our time.”
Williams has been anchor and managing editor of “NBC Nightly News” since 2004, when he succeeded Tom Brokaw. His broadcast has long been considered a block of stability for the network. On Tuesday, “NBC Nightly News” issued a news release announcing that it was the top evening newscast in total viewers for January for the second month in a row.
Williams is a familiar presence outside the anchor chair, too. He has hosted “Saturday Night Live,” and appeared frequently on late-night TV shows like “The Daily Show” and “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” assuming a kind of comedic persona that stands in sharp contrast to his identity as a newsman.
Other prominent TV journalists have made big mistakes. Dan Rather of CBS relied on bogus documents for a 2004 story questioning President George W. Bush’s National Guard record. In 2013, Lara Logan took a leave of absence from “60 Minutes” for a flawed story about an attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya.
This is a different situation, though. If it turns out that Williams intentionally misled the public, it will be an instance not of careless or irresponsible reporting, but of a journalist lying for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.
Ever since the days of Walter Cronkite and Vietnam, network anchors have traveled frequently to war zones to get closer to the action and enhance their credibility as reporters. NBC’s ties to the military are especially strong, in part because of Brokaw, who wrote “The Greatest Generation,” a best-selling book describing the Americans who fought in World War II. Brokaw reported frequently on soldiers and veterans, and Williams kept up the tradition when he took over.
While the audience for the nightly news broadcasts has been in decline for years, it is still significant. For the season to date, NBC has averaged 8.95 million total viewers for its evening news broadcast, compared to 8.11 million for ABC and 6.87 million for CBS.
For Turness, who joined NBC in 2013, the controversy represents yet another unwelcome challenge. She was already facing the unenviable task of keeping the nightly news broadcast relevant in the era of smartphones, as well as turmoil at the “Today” morning show, not to mention steep ratings declines at MSNBC.
Now she is dealing with a scandal involving one of her biggest stars, whose attempt to quell a budding fiasco has only worsened it, spawning - among other things - jokes that Williams might otherwise have appreciated.
“Brian Williams will be fine,” Andy Levy, a Fox News commentator, wrote on Twitter. “If he can survive being hit by an RPG, he can survive this.”