Brian Williams has told a story for years about being in a helicopter flying over Iraq in 2003 during the war, with his helicopter taking fire from rocket propelled grenade launchers, forcing his helicopter to make an emergency landing in the desert. A compelling war correspondent story for sure and one that makes for great re-telling at public events.
Except that it’s not true. It turns out Williams embellished. He misremembered, if you will. Lied? Whatever you want to call it. So what do you do with a news anchor, who is promoted as being all about truth and trust, who’s told a a pretty big fib for a long time, only to correct it when he’s been forced to do so by others that were involved in the episode?
Sadly, some journalists are calling for us to be gentle with Williams, pointing to the famous Salvador Dali painting called “The Persistence of Memory,” which shows melting clocks in a desert wasteland, suggesting how our memories are not always concrete, and that our memories shape shift over time.
I understand that as we all age, our memories become softer and perhaps we misremember things from our youth or our parenting years. It happens to me and it happens to all of us. But in Williams case, he’s been telling a story for many years that is one most people would never forget — a very close brush with death in a helicopter over Iraq — and one that his NBC colleagues who were with him apparently didn’t ask him to correct.
Now that some military members who were there say that’s not how it happened, Williams has issued his mea culpa, saying:
“After a ground fire incident in the desert during the Iraq war invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” he said. “It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert. I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. . . . 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.”
So after the apology, which some say still isn’t completely accurate, are Williams and NBC News hoping we’ll all go about our business and forget that one of the most respected news anchors was embellishing a story to make it better in the telling?
It can’t be, as it raises too many questions. Why would he lie? Why make up that story? If he’s embellished once, when else has he done it? One report in the New Orleans Advocate says some people are already suggesting that the coverage that made Williams a true household name — his reporting from the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — have some of the same earmarks of, as Stephen Colbert might say, “truthiness.”
I’m not judging Williams, who is the managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, — yet. But I am here to ask, what becomes of what still passes for journalism if we can’t rely on newscasters to tell the truth? And, will he be allowed to get away with it and remain in his anchor seat?
I ask, because I’m thinking about Lara Logan. Remember Lara Logan? She was put on an indefinite “leave of absence” by CBS News in 2o13 after a source in one of her 60 Minutes stories lied, and the network decided that she and the producers hadn’t done their jobs fact-checking the source. Logan was pilloried for the story, as if she had told the lie herself.
Yet one writer at Poynter, a site dedicated to journalism training and ethics, and Politico, the inside the DC Beltway political site, are both suggesting we all cut Williams some slack. After all, we all have bad memories, right? And we let politicians get away with “misremembering” their visits to war-torn regions, right?
Sorry guys — but this one is different. Politicians always embellish. I’m not saying it’s OK, but I’m not looking to politicians to be truth telling news gatherers. And as for wavering memories? I admit to my own, but I’m pretty sure if I had been in a helicopter convoy over Iraq and someone was firing a rocket propelled grenade at the group, the memory of exactly what had occurred would be seared into my brain forever. And, as a reporter, I’d be smart enough to know that other people involved in the same situation, would be around one day to call me out if I wasn’t telling the truth.
So NBC, and other networks, have to decide as the Brian Williams story unfolds — is it OK for those who are supposed to be delivering the news to us in a truthful and unbiased manner to get away with not telling the truth about their own experiences? And, if they’re going to punish women journalists like Lara Logan for an offense that doesn’t rise to the level of Williams’, will they hold Brian “I’m all about trust” Williams to the same standard?