The NBC News anchor has apologized for saying last week that he was aboard a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire when he was covering the Iraq war back in 2003. He wasn’t.
Williams was outed by soldiers who were on the chopper Williams did ride in. They told Stars and Stripes their Chinook did not come under fire on that flight. A helicopter ahead of them did.
“I feel terrible about making this mistake,” Williams told Stars and Stripes. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” He also apologized on the air last night.
Here’s the thing: Williams has been telling a version of this false story for years, according to a timeline put together by CNN’s Brian Stelter. As far back as 2007, in an NBC TV report, Williams refers to the time “when the Chinook helicopters we were traveling in at the start of the Iraq War were fired on and forced down for three days in a stretch of hostile desert.”
As time went on, Williams got more specific and added details, telling David Letterman in 2013, “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.”
The trouble with Williams’ apology for getting part of the story wrong is that other aspects of his account are now being challenged. In several versions of the story he’s told, the chopper Williams was in landed at about the same time as the others in the convoy. A crew member on the chopper that was hit by enemy fire disputes that. He told Stars and Stripes that the NBC crew arrived 30 minutes to an hour after his helicopter set down, and he’s miffed at Williams for suggesting otherwise.
“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. “It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.”
Why does any of this matter? Obviously, it’s damaged Williams’ credibility and by extension, that of NBC News. Some critics already are calling for his head.
“If credibility means anything to NBC News, Brian Williams will no longer be managing editor and anchor of the evening newscast by the end of the day Friday,” writes David Zurawik in the Baltimore Sun.
My guess is that’s not going to happen, not because NBC doesn’t care about credibility but for lots of other reasons. Williams might be suspended, but I’d be shocked if he’s fired. For one thing, Williams was quick to apologize once he was called out, and besides, there’s no way to be sure he was deliberately lying. That would, indeed, be a firing offense. But science tells us “the phenomenon of false memories is common to everybody,” as Time magazine reported. It’s just possible that Williams, who admits he’s not a tough guy war correspondent, was so shaken up by his experience that he unconsciously embellished the story. It didn’t happen the way he said it did, but it felt like it did.
It’s a black eye for NBC News and its main anchor, for sure. But it’s not Tora Bora. Geraldo Rivera’s story from Afghanistan in 2001 was false from the get-go. He never apologized, blaming instead “the fog of war.” And he’s still employed by Fox News.