NBC News anchor and managing editor Brian Williams has now served the first two weeks of his six-month suspension in the wake of lies (if that’s the right word–but we’ll get to that) about his experience in the Iraq war. His credibility seems pretty much demolished, his name has become a punchline, and even his daughter can’t get away with defending him.
What bugs me is that Williams has been branded, in most people’s minds, with “lying about the news,” when it’s not clear to me that’s exactly true. To be clear, I’m a very firm believer in journalistic ethics, and for a reporter to fabricate the facts of a story is wholly unacceptable. But I don’t think that’s what Brian Williams did.
Certainly, the version of the story he told to David Letterman in 2013 and again on NBC in January were false. Call them lies, if you will, but it’s hard to characterize a story told 10 years later on a talk show, or even on a news program 12 years after the fact, a “news report.” In 2003, Williams reported that he was in a helicopter just behind the one that took fire, and that his was forced to land behind its companion, not because it took fire. Williams repeated that version, in that form, multiple times between 2003 and 2007; it wasn’t until the Letterman show ten years after the fact, when Williams was recounting the story not in a news context but as a personal anecdote, that he shifted the facts.
There is question whether the story as he told it in March of 2003, when it was inarguably news, was true. Stars and Stripes and others spoke to soldiers who were there that day, and remember Williams arriving in a Chinook 30-60 minutes behind the one that was fired upon; if that is in fact true, then the smearing of Williams is entirely justified. It seems important, however, to consider that those soldiers are basing their statements on memories aged nearly 12 years, and that others who were there that day say they remember things as Williams originally described. [Read more…]