Defending Brian Williams – to a point


There’s no question that “NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams “misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003,” as NBC News President Deborah Turness put it in a Feb. 10 memo to her staff. Williams had acknowledged that days before Turness announced his six-month suspension without pay.

But Williams also strongly maintains that his misstatements were unintentional, the result of jumbled memories at least a decade old. And he has apologized for them, though with atypical clumsiness, to viewers and to troops who were connected to the events of 2003.

NBC doesn’t seem so sure about the “unintentional” part. So one month and $833,000 into his six-month $5 million suspension, Williams waits for Richard Esposito, NBC News’ senior executive producer for investigations, to complete his assignment to sort the facts from the insinuation, supposition and snark that’s become attached to the Iraq story as well as to Williams’ 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, accounts of personal contacts with U.S. Special Forces troops and other pieces.

The media-twit-blogo-socio-sphere isn’t waiting for Esposito. Propelled by a hyperventilated frenzy of sometimes politically tinged coverage, it reached a verdict almost immediately: Williams is an unprincipled self-promoter who believes he can get away with inventing things that enhance his image and stature, regardless of how many people would be able to expose the deceptions.

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Frenzy tends to be a poor starting point for investigation and deliberation. I mean, when we analyze puppy-rescue stories dating to Williams’ volunteer stint at a New Jersey firehouse when he was in high school, haven’t we crossed into a dimension not of sight and sound but of farce?

The ignition source for the Williams controversy was a story he aired four weeks ago about a retiring Army veteran he met in Iraq in 2003. In connection with that report, Williams mentioned a helicopter supply mission on March 24, 2003, during which he, an NBC military consultant and a camera crew flew with a company from the 159th Aviation Regiment. 

“The helicopter we were traveling in,” Williams said, “was forced down after being hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade).”

Not true. His helicopter was not hit by an RPG, and it made a sudden, hard landing in the desert to hunker down against a worsening Iraqi dust storm.

I’ve watched and rewatched multiple televised news reports and interviews and reviewed transcripts of Williams’ Iraq reporting and the recent uproar over it. I’ve tried to closely follow published coverage, including extensive reporting by Stars and Stripes, the independent military newspaper, and it’s particularly helpful report of April 1, 2003, about a helicopter/RPG incident that occurred in Iraq a week earlier. 

What emerged from all this was a distinctly unsexy, nonclick-bait sense of run-of-the-mill sloppy reporting and compounded errors by Williams under admittedly challenging circumstances. 

Contrary to damning claims that Williams’ account of the 2003 helicopter mission gradually “evolved” over time from accuracy to fabrication, his content was factually flawed from the start — but not with the RPG claim. Those flawed descriptions remained essentially unchanged for 10 years with minor variations of little significance. 

On March 26, 2003, NBC aired three slightly different versions of reports from Williams at midday, on “Nightly News” and on “Dateline.” He said the NBC contingent had been in a group of four helicopters flying low and slow over the Iraqi desert carrying heavy payloads of bridge parts.

That was Williams’ first error. Three men – each identified in recent, separate CNN interviews as the pilot of Williams’ helicopter – said the mission did not consist of four choppers. Two men said there were only two aircraft. One man said there were three.

The Williams stories also included audio recorded off his helicopter’s radio in which an unidentified crew member says the chopper had taken enemy fire. Shortly thereafter, Williams’ helicopter and another from his group made an unplanned landing in the desert. Two other helicopters were already there. One had a hole from an RPG round near its rear rotor and bullet holes from small-arms fire.

The Stars and Stripes piece of April 1, 2003, makes clear that the two helicopters already on the ground were part of a separate mission of three helicopters, one of which had landed elsewhere. All had come under fire; one had been hit.

Flash forward 12 years. The complete transcript of Williams’ Feb. 4 interview with Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten revealed Williams’ second error: Williams believed the four helicopters on the ground were all part of the mission he was accompanying. In fact, two were with his mission carrying bridge parts, and two were from the separate mission carrying spare helicopter parts. Only the latter had taken enemy fire. 

“That’s the first time I’ve heard that,” Williams told Tritten.

Believing all four helicopters were part of his group, Williams seems to have concluded that the “taking fire” radio report they heard earlier had come from another chopper in his group – a third error. And based on the fact that the RPG-damaged chopper was on the ground when he arrived, Williams reported that his helicopter had been behind the one that was hit by the RPG – error No. 4. 

In Williams’ defense, he might have got the story straight if he had interviewed soldiers from the choppers that had been attacked. He asked to do so, but they declined. The NBC team had to settle for video of the damage.

Williams’ recounting of this 2003 incident remained essentially consistent in its inaccuracy for 10 years. The first major change I came across occurred during Williams’ guest appearance on the March 26, 2013, installment of CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman.” Williams said his chopper had been hit by RPG and AK-47 fire. He repeated that erroneous assertion on Jan. 30, 2015, in the “Nightly News” story about the retiring veteran.

It seems implausible that Williams would suddenly decide in 2013 to exaggerate the gravity of the 2003 incident after 10 years of modest, if inaccurate, descriptions. That lends credence to his assertion that it was unintentional.

Some of Williams’ critics have insisted he’s been using the RPG dodge from the beginning, citing as proof a listing in an archive of NBC clips available to be licensed for a fee. The title of one clip from March 26, 2003, is “Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams was Riding In Comes Under Fire.”

But the clip seems to be Williams’ “Dateline” report, and that title line did not appear in the broadcast, either in spoken or text form. I’ve found no evidence that it ever was used on the air.

Will Williams ever return to NBC? I don’t have a clue. But the network’s decision, whatever it is, needs to be fact-driven, not frenzy-driven.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected]