For a while there I was on the fence as to whether NBC should fire Brian Williams for falsely claiming that he was in a helicopter that sustained an attack during the Iraq war. I never watch television news which probably inclined me slightly against termination or at least towards indifference. But whenever I considered the feelings of NBC Nightly News watchers, my sympathy for Williams faded.
Without credibility, a news anchor is nothing. GAAT (Greatest Anchor of All-Time) Walter Cronkite was the most trusted man in America for many years. When Cronkite signed off with “and that’s the way it is” people believed him. But from now on when watching and listening to Williams, most people I assume will question the veracity of his reports.
Still, I thought Jeremy Holden from Media Matters made a good point in noting that Williams’s “mistake” didn’t go directly to his reportage. And the lie got worse in the telling which for me was a very small point in Williams’ favor. According to Stars and Stripes which broke the story, in 2003, NBC reported that Williams was in a helicopter immediately following the one that got shelled but was not hit. In fact his helicopter was some distance away flying in a different group and was never in the zone of danger. It is not clear who was the source of this misinformation.
Four years later, in 2007, Williams falsely blogged that the helicopter directly in front of his was hit in the rotor. In 2010, the University of Notre Dame issued a news release saying essentially the same thing. Still, it wasn’t until ten years after the events in Iraq that Williams is first documented to have claimed he was in the helicopter that sustained enemy damage.
On March 4, 2013, Williams told host Alec Baldwin on a public radio program that he was in a helicopter in Iraq “with rounds coming into the airframe”. Twenty-two days later on the David Letterman Show, he embellished his fabrication by claiming: “Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, uh RPG and AK-47, we were only at a hundred feet.” Facts finally caught up with Williams January 30 after he repeated the lie during an NBC Nightly News Report and crew members of the helicopter team that had ferried Williams and sustained gunfire told Stars and Stripes that Williams was full of it.
My initial reaction to this timeline was that it didn’t look at all good for Williams and that it might be best if he resigned but I had some sympathy for him given that he may not have been the original source of the false claim that his helicopter was right behind the one attacked. If this were the case, perhaps Williams really believed that he was in the same cohort as the helicopter that had sustained enemy fire when he so blogged 2007. I believe it is plausible that in 2013, when he told Alec Baldwin his helicopter had been attacked, Williams had come to believe this.
Why do I say this? Exactly thirty years ago, I was in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where I lived for several months while I worked at the ski resort. Embedded in my memory is the very coldest temperature, I think, I ever experienced. I can still picture in my mind’s eye when I first drove in town the Yampa Valley bank’s digital clock on Main Street showing -67 degrees in late January. For decades now, when people have complained to me about how cold 25 degrees is, I smile. “You don’t know real cold.” I might say. “I know real cold. I experienced -67 degrees.” Only I didn’t.
The temperature records of Steamboat Springs go back over a century. The coldest recorded temperature in January 1985 was -25. Now, I know it got colder than that and sure enough in February the temperature at one moment got down to -44, colder sure but still a long way from -67. Is it possible that in that bitter cold, the inside of the mobile home where I stayed for a few days was coated in ice every morning, the bank clock could have showed -67? I guess but it seems implausible. In any case, I had the month wrong.
Given my history of fabulating a polar winter experience, a story that I really believed (and still halfway believe), I was prepared to cut Williams some slack. That is until I heard his “apology” appended below:
On this broadcast last week, in an effort to honor and thank a veteran who protected me and so many others after a ground-fire incident in the desert during the Iraq War invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of twelve years ago. . . . I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire; I was instead in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground-fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert. This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran, and by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect, and also now my apology.
Here’s what’s wrong: Williams never uses the word lie or even misrepresent. Instead, he says he “made a mistake”. It was not a mistake for him to say he was under fire, even if he had come to believe the story, at best, it was wholly false braggadocio which he had a duty to admit. Instead, he tried to justify his boast as “a bungled attempt” to thank a veteran. He also strongly implied that he was right behind the aircraft that was hit – not an hour away – and that his helicopter was forced down by the fire when in fact his crew reported that it was a sand storm that forced them to land.
For Brian Williams to regain the credibility he must have to perform his duties as NBC’s Nightly News Anchor, it was incumbent upon him to acknowledge forthrightly that he told falsehoods and that even the original report that he was very near the zone of combat was untrue. Under these circumstances, I believe NBC must offer him a chance to resign or face dismissal.