NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams delivered an on-air apology this week for telling a false war story involving a 2003 incident in Iraq. While the apology was well done, it may not be enough to calm the waters or repair the damage to the credibility of one of broadcast journalism’s most credible figures.
As public apologies go, Williams gave a good one. He owned a mistaken recall of events, directed his apology to the servicemen involved in the false story and expressed an appropriate amount of remorse. But Williams didn’t fully answer the question of why he made up the story in the first place, and why it took so long to admit it — to the world, to himself.
It was the kind of incident that would be hard to forget.
As Williams reported it in 2003, he was in a Chinook helicopter that took enemy fire from a propelled rocket grenade and made an emergency landing, rolling into the desert at the edge of an Iraqi airport. In reality, Williams and his camera crew were in a Chinook helicopter that arrived somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes later. The crew of the stricken helicopter was still assessing damage when Williams arrived. All the helicopters and crew remained in place for two or three days, surrounded by an Army unit for protection. No one reported any enemy fire during that time.
In the excitement of the moment, Williams filed a report on the life-and-death incident, putting himself in harm’s way in the helicopter that was hit. As you would expect, the hot-dogging irritated the men who actually were in harm’s way, but they were too busy to object or just assumed it was another hotshot TV reporter showing off.
Williams has emerged as one of TV’s most respected and trusted TV guys. Because of his willingness to let his broadcast anchor hair down on shows like Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live, Williams also has wide appeal. He is the most watched guy on TV news.
His reputation is based on a lot more than the helicopter incident in the Iraq desert, but since 2003 his reputation has included continual reference to the incident. NBC traded on the incident. Tom Brokaw interviewed Williams about the incident. So when Williams repeated his false story last week as part of tribute to a retired soldier, the crew in the 159th Aviation Regiment had had enough.
Sgt. Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the helicopter carrying Williams and crew, went to Stars and Stripes. “No, we never came under direct enemy fire to the aircraft,” Miller said.
“It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it,” said Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer of the helicopter that was hit. “It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”
Stars and Stripes exhumed from the NBC online archive the headline of Williams story: “Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams Was Riding In Comes Under Fire.”
In his apology, Williams said that 12 years after the incident, his memory had conflated the helicopter being hit and his later arrival. “Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience … 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.”
However, Williams didn’t explain or apologize for why he falsely reported his direct involvement in the first place. Unquestionably, it made for a better story, but it was baldly untrue. He also didn’t explain why he repeated the false story in a piece he wrote in 2007 or variously described the incident. In some versions, he rode in the helicopter trailing the helicopter that was hit.
Print and broadcast journalists have been sanctioned or fired for falsifying stories. Williams may face discipline himself from NBC.
Whether he is or not, his credibility has taken a blow. Social media blew up following his apology, with many dismissing his apology as insufficient and others poking fun at him for taking credit where credit wasn’t due. At #BrianWilliamsMemories, there were online parodies of Williams reporting from the moon, being seated at the Last Supper, hitting the beach at Normandy and chronicling an asteroid storm that wiped out the earthly world of dinosaurs. One wag placed Williams alongside O.J. Simpson on his famous freeway ride.
Funny stuff for us; not so funny for Williams. He was back at the anchor desk, but a big chunk of his reputation was left in shreds on the cutting room floor.