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.
If the 2003 version was a lie, then Brian Williams has been rightly condemned–but if we presume, for sake of argument and for the time being, that the 2003 version was true, then it’s hard to regard the 2013-15 version as a willful lie. Why would a network anchor intentionally lie about something he had accurately reported, on the record, numerous times in prior years? In his on-air apology before his suspension, Williams said he misremembered, and that would seem by far the most likely explanation.
It also seems impossible for Brian Williams to get anything resembling a fair shake in the media courtroom, where so many rivals and critics have reasons to want to see him fall. As soon as there was blood in the air the knives came out: from rival news stations, from right-wing politicians and talking heads seeking to reinforce the myth that the media cannot be trusted, and from the vast assortment of disreputable outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch, always happy to taint any more principled newsroom.
It does seem apparent that Williams has a reputation among his peers for embellishment and self-aggrandizing. When this story broke, there was almost no delay before other dubious claims surfaced–but these other accusations seem dubious at best. Williams claimed to have seen a dead body from his hotel window after Katrina, and to have caught dysentery from drinking contaminated water–nine years later, self-proclaimed experts are delighted to point out that the French Quarter mostly avoided flooding (do note that “mostly”) and question the dysentery story, but both seem difficult to disprove. There were undoubtedly dead bodies in the water in New Orleans, though perhaps not just outside Brian Williams’ hotel room, and maybe he didn’t get a doctor’s diagnosis for his upset stomach–but if these are the worst distortions anyone can find from Brian Williams, his integrity hardly seems diminished.
The Iraq story, if the 2003 version was distorted, is significant, but the truth remains unclear. NBC has announced that they are investigating the truth behind Williams’ reporting, and between the NBC news footage shot on the scene of the downed helicopter and the flight logs of the helicopters themselves, it would seem there should be enough evidence to prove or disprove the truth behind the 2003 Iraq story.
In the end it’s certainly fair for a newsman who gets his facts wrong to be questioned, investigated, suspended, and even mocked–I’m guilty of a Brian Williams joke or two myself. But with what we know now, at least, it seems rushed and unfair to brand Brian Williams as a liar.
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