Did Brian Williams Really Misremember Being Shot At?
I like NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams. My wife and I DVR his nightly newscast and, on nights we can find the time, we watch at least the “A block” of his newscast. So it’s entirely possible that my favorable feelings toward Mr. Williams are coloring my perspective on a story that emerged late today about a major event he got wrong.
For several years, Williams has been telling a story about being in a helicopter that was shot down while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the story wasn’t true. According to Stars and Stripes:
“NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.”
This afternoon, after being challenged online by several soldiers who were on that plane, Williams admitted in a Facebook post (transcribed by The Wrap) that he misremembered the story:
“To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) 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. I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don’t remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds. Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim’s Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him. The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.”
He also offered a rather glib apology tonight on NBC Nightly News:
Many people on Twitter are questioning how anyone—much less a news anchor—could somehow confuse being shot at. I understand where they’re coming from. But memory is notoriously unreliable, and as difficult as it might be to believe, it’s at least possible that Williams is telling the truth.
According to Dr. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules:
“Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.”
Therefore, there are two possibilities here: That his was an honest error, or that he’s a liar. I’d very much like to believe that it’s the former, and that possibility shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
But I wouldn’t stop there. I’ve learned through the years that people who make up stories are usually repeat offenders. Therefore, NBC News has an obligation to review any other similar stories Mr. Williams has told about his past and determine their accuracy. Williams should welcome such a review—if he’s telling the truth, such a review would only serve to enhance his credibility and help confirm his explanation.
Either way, this incident is a devastating blow to his credibility—regardless of how it happened, he blew the story. And, as the tweet below (and many more like it) shows, he’s become a target of mockery.
This reputational crisis isn’t likely to end immediately. Journalists and bloggers are already picking over the details of how Mr. Williams has told this story in the past (The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple have already posted excellent articles.) In the meantime, the pressure on NBC to take some type of meaningful disciplinary action against their lead anchor will be tremendous.
UPDATE: February 4, 2015, 9:05pm
A reader pointed out that Brian Williams seemed quite comfortable telling his false story on The Late Show With David Letterman. Even if his recollection of this story was due to a “false memory,” this will serve as a huge hit to his credibility. For balance, though, it’s also worth reading this article in The New Yorker, which shows how faulty human memory can be, especially during dramatic events.
NEW: Don’t miss my follow-up post, “What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?“
[…] Brad Phillips: Did Brian Williams really misremember being shot at? […]
I tend to agree with the third option you provide below. I definitely agree with the first sentence “His explanation is plausible.” However, the second sentence should either be left out or replaced by “There are many instances of people misremembering things.”
But he is so precise with hundreds of the supposed details! This is no mistake. I’m also struck by the complicated apology (I needed to read it three times and I’m still puzzled by what he’s talking about or apologizing for) as well as by his use of military jargon to make himself come off as GI Joe. His career is soon over.
p.s. the hundreds of details in the Letterman video clip
Why should Brian Williams get the benefit of the doubt? Would we offer that same courtesy to a politician (especially of the right wing variety) or business person? I’m certain The New Yorker would not. As Dan Rather proved rather clumsily, journalists have the same biases and faults as everyone else. They are not the special people they consider themselves to be.
Thank you for your email. You raise an entirely fair point, and it’s why I felt it necessary to disclose my own bias. If anything, my own bias is a bit interesting, because it shows that even someone generally predisposed to like him is beginning to turn on him. If he can’t keep his closest fans, well, he’s in trouble.
Thanks for writing,
Perhaps Mr. Williams thought that he is such a celebrity that there would be no one checking his story since he delivered it with such authority. Some people do like to embellish stories though this is beyond the norm.
I’m anxious to see how NBC will handle this incident. It appears the liberal media will turn their heads as usual. If Williams had been on FOX he’d be crucified by the left and I’d bet even if it were one of their top people, he’d be gone. No second chance.
Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure the liberal media is turning its head on this one. The Huffington Post — a left-leaning website with a huge audience — has been running a brutal “Lyin’ Brian” headline for days. If anything, I’m surprised by just how much and how quickly the rest of the media have turned on Brian Williams. We shall see…
Thanks for reading,
I had a hard time with this one because I too have been a big fan of his. I love his writing style and delivery. I always believed him but now I will always question him. A news organization can’t survive that. And NBC has a painful history of navigating choppy waters like this. Remember the Dr. Nancy Snyderman fiasco last year? She gives people medical advice and told everyone about the need for quarantine if you are exposed to Ebola. Then she herself breaks quarantine to get a burger? NBC slaps her on the wrist and then sits her right back up there with Brian Williams to give us more advice. She has zero credibility left. And don’t get me started on the Ann Curry debacle. The TODAY Show is just now recovering from the absolute mess they created. The key here is exactly what we teach every single day. Speed. NBC needs to act swiftly. Order up a nice montage of Brian moments and edit it together with some music and soundbites and have him deliver his farewell speech to the viewers that are left. Why? Everything he has ever reported on is now being questioned and scrutinized. In this age of youtube and social media they won’t be able to survive this. They must make a clean start.
There’s a huge difference between “making a mistake” and lying. “I was in a trio of helicopters where one was hit by an RPG” and “I was in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG” are two unmistakeably different things. “My car was hit by an RPG” and “The car next to me was hit by an RPG”… both traumatic, but on a completely different scale. A bystander might have a memory problem 12 years later if asked whether the blue or black car was hit. But for occupants of a car or a helicopter actually hit—sorry—getting that wrong pretty much cannot be a mistake. An exception might be if one were on multiple helicopters taking enemy fire… some of which were hit and some that were next to others that were hit. Then it might be easy and understandable to forget which time was which.