Brian Williams’ Tall Tale Raises New Challenge For NBC News

Brian Williams Lie Iraq

The waters have been choppy for NBC News in recent years, with its “Today” franchise having ceded ground to ABC’s “Good Morning America” and its Sunday-morning mainstay “Meet the Press” struggling to find a new identity after the death of longtime host Tim Russert. Amidst that chaos, Brian Williams was supposed to be the anchor – in both senses of the word.

Now Williams, whose “NBC Nightly News” is the most watched evening newscast in the United States, has added to the challenges facing the NBCUniversal news division.

There have been no signals that NBC News is taking Williams off the air or readying any sort of disciplinary action in the wake of a disclosure Wednesday that he has on multiple occasions falsely stated that he was on a helicopter shot down by enemy fire while on an NBC News reporting trip in Iraq in 2003. Yet the admission seems to stack another pile on the plate of NBC News President Deborah Turness.

Since joining NBC News in the summer of 2013, Turness has not had to focus overmuch on Williams and his program. Despite inroads made among key viewers by ABC’s “World News Tonight,” particularly under its new anchor David Muir, Williams and “NBC Nightly News” have been more or less unassailable. Indeed, “Nightly” has beaten “World News” among viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 — the audience most coveted by advertisers — in both December and January, according to data from Nielsen.

Instead, Turness has appeared to place more emphasis on “Today,” a battleship of a TV program that puts more hours on NBC each week than there are in Fox’s entire primetime lineup, and “Meet The Press,” a Sunday-morning institution that hinges on getting key newsmakers to divulge something eyebrow-raising.

Under her aegis, “Today” has added Carson Daly to its ranks, burnished its image as a place for harder news (though it’s still prone to chasing sillier stuff) and pursued an executive to oversee the entire franchise — not without some difficulty. “Today” topped “Good Morning America in both overall viewers and viewers between the ages of 25 and 54 on Wednesday, January 21 – the first time it has done so in five months. Even so, “GMA” won more viewers in both categories for the week ended January 26, according to Nielsen — as it has continued to do for many months.

NBC News changed the host of “Meet The Press” in 2014, ousting David Gregory in favor of Chuck Todd. The show on January 18 notched a second-place win, and its best numbers in about ten months.

Now Williams will require attention, as NBC News tries to determine whether his falsehoods will damage his credibility as a news anchor. Williams has told the story for years, during an appearance on David Letterman’s “Late Show”  and at various public functions, of being aboard a whirlybird shot down by enemy fire in the Iraq desert. He only conceded he was not telling the truth yesterday in an interview in Stars & Stripes when U.S. Army servicemen who had been aboard the aircraft in question challenged Williams’ account, noting that he was never aboard the Chinook helicopter at the heart of the story and instead was on a helicopter that followed the damaged one.

“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said in the interview with the military newspaper.  “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” He also posted an apology on his Facebook page and offered similar sentiments during Wednesday night’s broadcast of “Nightly News.” The Iraqi incident took place before Williams took over the “Nightly News” anchor desk from Tom Brokaw in 2004.

What makes Williams’ admission worse, according to one person familiar with the situation, is that he had been counseled in the past by senior NBC News executives to stop telling the story in public. The advice, this person said, was not heeded.  One person familiar with current NBC News operations disputed that information.

Williams’ version of the story has never been allowed in NBC News programs, according to three people familiar with the unit. Indeed, in a March 2003 episode of “Dateline,” Williams described the helicopter trip accurately. “On the ground, we learned the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky,” he said while narrating a report.

The way in which the story has transformed under his telling may prove unacceptable to a news audience, suggested Doug Spero, an associate professor of communication at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C., who has worked at various New York TV-news outlets. “A memory loss is OK, if it is a minor detail about something in a story, but when you are personally involved in an incident there is no room for compromise.  I have always said, ‘I believe you until I can’t believe you any more.’ This may be that case.  All we have is our credibility.  Once you lose that, your general worth has been lowered.”

Williams’ disclosure comes not long after NBC News has had to retract or further bolster reporting claims during important stories that were later found to be inaccurate or challenged. Earlier this month, NBC News chief global correspondent Bill Neely reported that suspects in France’s Charlie Hebdo killings were dead or in custody — information that was incorrect. Williams reiterated the details about six minutes later, echoing Neely’s findings. The TV journalists had to retract the claims, and acknowledge the government-intelligence sources they had relied upon did not give sound facts.

Roughly a week ago, NBC News reported that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army sergeant who was held captive in Afghanistan for five years after leaving his post before being rescued, was to be charged with desertion. The Pentagon denied the reports, and NBC News updated its report with new statements, though it did not admit its reporting was inaccurate. To be sure, many news outlets make mistakes, and correct stories as circumstances warrant. These examples came to pass on prominent events.

Can NBC News truly do anything? There are precedents, of a sort. MSNBC, which is also owned by NBCUniversal but supervised by an executive other than Turness, has suspended prominent personalities in the past.

In 2010, Keith Olbermann was suspended for two days after it was discovered he had made political donations to three Democratic candidates for Congress, a violation of NBC News ethics policies. Joe Scarborough was suspended that same year for the same length of time after Politico discovered he had made donations to political candidates. At the time, MSNBC and NBC News were more closely linked.

Williams is more or less the face of NBC’s signature news division. To reprimand him is to cast aspersion on the entire operation. In December, NBC News took time out to celebrate Williams’ ten years as anchor of “Nightly,” releasing a series of archive clips highlighting major moments from his decade behind the desk. A promo narrated by actor Michael Douglas touting Williams has made the rounds of NBC’s air and its various digital properties And NBC News recently signed the anchor to a new contract, reported by the Los Angeles Times to be valued at $10 million a year over five years.

Has this recent episode tainted the network’s newscast, or will it fade as the next trending topic surfaces in the rapid-fire social-media news cycle? NBC – and its rivals – will have to monitor the ratings to find out.

 

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 53

Leave a Reply

53 Comments

Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. A 30 year Veteran says:

    I just don’t understand why some folks want to let “bygones be bygones” and let Brian Williams off the hook for what he did. And you call that 60 second on-air crap an apology!!?? You’ve got to be kidding me – “my memory was conflated”???? That was the most insincere and arrogant attempt at trying to save his over inflated, $10M a year salary. Yup – that’s all it was, an attempt to keep getting all that money. Let’s not forget that he built his so called credibility on the backs of the military personnel that made sure he was safe and secure during his “harrowing and life threatening experience in a war zone”. He “Stole the Valor” from the Veterans that really did come under fire that day. Let’s put one other thing in perspective – if everyone on that mission decided to make the military a career, you can add up all their salaries for their entire 20 year career and you will still not come close to the one year ($10M) salary that Mr. Williams will collect. Please – don’t come back at me and tell me that it was an honest mistake. What he did was well calculated – he “Stole their Valor”, all for prestige and money.

  2. On 3/22/08, Dana Houle posted through the Daily Kos: “Hillary Clinton’s Walter Mitty Moment”. It happened in 1996. First Lady Clinton had landed in Bosnia, from Germany. She intimated that she had to run to safety amid sniper fire, holding 8-yr-old Chelsea close. It came out that this story was NOT true…there was NO sniper fire. I wonder how many times I’ve embellished a past memory? So, please keep Brian Williams on the news. He’s wonderful at it, and I watch NBC news at 6:30pm EVERY night because he’s there. I’m 72, and I can’t take any more disheartening situations!

  3. Judy English says:

    With all that is on this gentleman’s mind, a small slip-up doesn’t seem that important . In harsh conditions it seems as if it would be difficult to recall the entire situation which took place 12 years ago. For those who seem to be sooooo critical, can they remember an instance in their lives that took place some 12 years prior??
    Keep up the great work, Mr. Williams—-I’ll be thrilled to watch you on the evening news.

  4. Well of course, it happens all the time. Another helicopter gets shot down, you were in a helicopter, you see the shot-down helicopter an hour after the fact. Memories get conflated. Next thing you remember, you were taking fire. Stuff like this happens whenever we forget to take our Clozapine. Or, you know, smoke too much crystal meth. It could happen to anybody!

  5. 'Murica says:

    All this fake outrage and pearl-clutching. A guy tells a tall tale to make himself look good, that’s never happened before, ever. Big deal. Last month you were whining about “The Interview.” OMG MAH FREEDUMB! A month from now you will all be on to the next outrage. Hang tough, Brian. If you can survive your daughter getting her ass eaten on HBO, you can live through anything.

  6. Jacques Strappe says:

    Everyone knows the only truth spoken on television comes from FOX News. Okay, okay…I apologize to anyone with even half a brain for making that up. To the truly brainless ones who actually watch FOX News, I am sorry for the loss of your brains.

    • dizzymissl says:

      The funny thing is that they all lie, but the liberals think that only Fox lies. Jokes on you

      • Drake L.A. says:

        I don’t really think news organizations really “lie.” They misrepresent facts, they engage in bias, they often manipulate public perception. Different people can see the same situation differently. What seems to be fact is often subjective. That’s different than “lying.”
        What Brian Williams did is a lie in the strict definition of the word.

  7. Candy says:

    Perhaps he should be examined for early onset Alzheimers. If he doesn’t have it, his career is toast, and if he does, probably toast also

  8. Daisydog says:

    So, are you saying NBC knew the story was a lie?

  9. Jim says:

    Wait, hold on. Just a second there. You’re telling me the media sometimes lie for purposes of self-aggrandizement, or to make a political point?

  10. firstpoppa says:

    Hey! It’s NBC….”Fake but accurate!”

  11. Thomas Macso says:

    He was just jealous of Killary, after all she was under machine gun fire in Bosnia so why not ME, said Brian!

  12. Dr. Venture says:

    Good News for Williams, Dan Rather says Brian is an honest and truthful man, which is about as helpful as Lance Armstrong claiming that Barry Bonds never took steroids.

  13. srvwp2013 says:

    What was it Al Franken said, something to the effect of “they’re all a lying pack of lying liars.”? The “evening news” is an anachronism in the 21st Century. All it does is give people a place to go to work. It makes another level of faux celebrity. The decline of civilization makes us all liars, reprobates, criminals, ne’re do wells, and felons of all variety. Everyday now, white collar felons are hustled off to jail. In America the penchant to be a criminal is part of the national birthright. The nature of this country began just as criminally as Australia did. The only difference being that the colonies were not specifically branded as Penal Colonies.

    Unfortunately, we cannot believe the media nor the people who work in the media. Human nature is essentially dishonest. The nature of life is to get one over on whomever you can.

  14. Chris says:

    “I lied. I’m sorry.” Four words that could save Williams. And would’ve saved Richard Nixon.

    But powerful people used to being pandered to have a hard time admitting they’re just as ordinary as everyone else.

    Watching William’s tortured “I don’t know what made me say that…but I just love the troops” defense is kind of revolting. And he delivered it with no visible sense of shame or remorse which communicated to me: “This is no big deal. I’m sorry. Let’s move on.”

    Then when you watch his jargon-filled recounting of the fabricated story on Letterman in 2013 “birds,” “RPG and AK-47 fire” etc., William’s lying becomes all the more bizarre and pathetic. Surely people lie because they have low self-esteem and don’t think that the truth of their lives is enough.

    If NBC News takes no action against him–either by firing him or at least, putting him on paid leave for three months–the new’s divisions credibility is all but shot (no pun intended).

  15. e says:

    You know Variety, if you’re gonna criticize a guy for getting something wrong, you should probably be more accurate yourself. You refer to the aircraft as a plane FOUR times in this article, when the story is about a helicopter. Come on.

  16. mcfeagle says:

    One of the truly sad parts of this whole story is that his so called ‘apology’ was so INSINCERE and lacked humility of ANY kind. He “misremembered,” his memory was “foggy…” Haha!

    I’m sure that if you were shot down in combat (or not, in his case), you would definitely remember that event. It’s an absolute insult that he ran so long with his farce of a story and was only truthful when some of the soldiers who were ACTUALLY shot down reported all of this to another news source.

    I can forgive a lot. Smug arrogance and halfway apologies I cannot.

  17. He has been caught in one lie for sure. Other “cable” news stations lie all day, every day! Both should be taken off the air. Where are the standards for informing the public? Where is the integrity in their profession? The best place for truth is Amy Goodman’s Democracy Today on Free Speech TV – No corporate overlords there.

  18. Mark Hendrix says:

    It’s great you don’t really care about the accuracy of your news as long as I entertains you Carol. You probably should check out a publication called the National Enquirer, it’s VERY entertaining.
    Mark

  19. Robert Hood says:

    I’m not the least bit surprised. Talking heads apparently do not get enough job satisfaction from simply reporting the news, they apparently have to, in some way, make the news. I could never have respect for anyone who would hang on to a lie this big for any amount of time. I now have Brian Williams in the same category as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (people who cannot separate fact from fiction).

  20. Kenneth Weir says:

    Once Matt the mouth was given carte blanche,free fall continues. I’d sooner watch the reruns of a test pattern from the 50’s

  21. Tim C says:

    We all create our own reality, when we tell or re-tell a story it takes on a life of it’s own.

  22. Carol says:

    who cares about something that happened in 2003 we all need to move on i really like his news show

  23. Jiminy Critic. says:

    Both putzes Williams and Lauer need to retire sooner rather than later.

  24. Morris Steen says:

    He lies with such ease, it almost seems natural. Is this what we have come to with network people and our politicians?

  25. rjoguillory says:

    …I was unaware that Brian Williams or any other mainstream media or news source had any “credibility” left to lose….they certainly do not have any left in my viewer / relationship bank account….?
    RJ O’Guillory
    Author-
    Webster Groves – The Life of an Insane Family

  26. mark says:

    Dan Rather was pressured to leave CBS News when he could not prove the story about George W. Bush Air National Guard service in Texas.So,change happens in life as Walter Cronkite was pressured to give up the anchor chair early so Dan Rather would stay at CBS. Whether Brian Williams is going to rebound from this is less important than whether after years of bad tarnishing of the NBC News image,a change in tactics is demanded by Comcast meaning Mr.Roberts in Philadelphia which owns NBC Universal. So far, not much changed other than Ann Curry’s departure or further back Deborah Norville’s brief tenure at Today or David Gregory’s slow decline and exit at Meet the Press.

  27. J.R. Richow says:

    I can not imagine anything that is less worthy of America’s short attention span than this right wing, flag-waving, I-am-the-righteous-patriot BS.

    Wave the flag like a fool, but remember: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

  28. Steve Burleigh says:

    Outrageous. Disgraceful. An insult to soldiers and true journalists who endure real combat, who value integrity and are willing to risk their lives for it. He not only lied, he boasted, presumably to add to his “credibility”. If you are mendacious and pompous you cannot be trusted and should not be allowed to be the poster boy for any news service. For Williams the broadcast is about him, his ego, the story and the truth are secondary. He should be banished to the same trash heap as Geraldo Rivera.

  29. A Soldier says:

    please stop using the word ‘plane.’ A Chinook is a helicopter.

    Also, when you write Williams was in the bird “following” the one that got hit, you imply it was in the same convoy. Williams’ bird was AN HOUR LATER.

    Having served in Iraq, I wonder if Williams didn’t hype other details, like the “harrowing” sandstorm. It was common to not be able to fly due to suboptimal weather conditions when flying by chopper. We always built in a couple extra days to travel knowing it would probably be delayed repeatedly.

  30. APismoClam says:

    All NBC has to do to make things right is just change the title of “The NBC Nightly News” to “The Secret Life of Brian Williams”. There. Done.

  31. MarinDem says:

    Stick A Fork In Him – He’s Done ! Unless of course NBC lacks the courage to promote truth telling by its News Department!

  32. Christine Noddin says:

    Every evening I eagerly sat down to watch the evening news with Brian Williams. I’d try to guess the lead story before the newscast began. I liked his delivery, his manner, and the fact he was not scandal. In my mind, he’s lost his credibility. He’s gone the way of Nancy Snyderman. I may turn to PBS for my news.

  33. Keith White says:

    Nightly News is so light these days I fully expect to see Williams float out his chair.

  34. sr says:

    He needs to resign. He lied to the public. His credibility is shot. It’s like lying on your resume. Same should apply to hillary when she lied that she was shot at by a sniper (probably was nothing but one of her farts backfiring). Lying as much as she has, she too is unfit to ever be president. But Williams compromised his credibility when this lie was revealed.

  35. Greg Marotta says:

    He must be pink slipped.

  36. Lex says:

    Williams needs to resign. If he had any ethics, he knows he needs to step aside now. This won’t fade over time. He’s a liar. His credibility is toast forever.

  37. Lex says:

    Brian Williams needs to resign. If he had any ethics, he knows he needs to step aside now. This won’t fade over time. He’s a liar. His credibility is toast forever.

    • Marie says:

      NBC didn’t require Snyderman to resign and she has lost all credibility, in my opinion. So why would they do so with BW? I just changed channels to ABC!

  38. Carlos Bravo says:

    That is the lie of someone deeply flawed, someone with a pathological need.

    The fact that man is a MANAGING EDITOR of one of the 4 biggest news outlets in the nation,

    should worry every single one of you.

  39. Nicholas P. Schiavone says:

    The “Vast Wasteland” has become the “Wretched Reality” of NBC News. For shame, Comcast & NBC Universal!

    When you take two of this week’s Variety headlines together you understand how & why Comcast is destroying NBC News: 1) “Brian Williams Raps Snoop Dogg’s ‘Who Am I’ on ‘The Tonight Show’ – Variety & 2) “NBC’s Brian Williams Admits He Told False Story About Iraq Expedition” – Variety 02.04.15).

    There are three people who need to take responsibility and action on this matter: 1) Brian Williams (NBC Slightly (sic) News Anchor), 2) Pat Fili-Krushel (Chairman of NBCUniversal News Group) & 3) Deborah Mary Turness President of NBC News). This is more than a disgrace. It is a breach of journalistic integrity and personal ethics.

    While there are many good people and fine journalists still within NBC News, the current management team is doing its best to drive the need to operate in “the public interest, convenience and necessity” into the graves of broadcast and journalistic heroes & heroines. Further, Comcast is turning NBC News into less than Newton Minow’s “vast wasteland.” Rather, Comcast is making the rest of Minow’s prediction become a wretched reality:
    “But when television is bad, nothing is worse. … I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few.”

    While one hopes corrective steps can be taken now that have lasting beneficial effects, the pimping, procuring, pandering, prostitution and self-destruction of NBC News seems to be leading to a horrendous national shame and calamity – especially when you consider that there are journalists that are killed and die to bring us the hard and dangerous truth.

    If you don’t believe this critical assessment, just watch MSNBC. With few exceptions (i.e., Rachel Maddow) there is a will to self-destruct on a level that constitutes a public insult, a national shame and a true embarrassment to anyone who believes in the necessity for a Fourth Estate in an American Democracy – a press that can be trusted without reservation or hesitation.

    If we are only as sick as our secrets, then the secret is out and NBC News has become an abomination – or so it would seem. Comcast, it appears, has turned it’s best news anchor into its worst make-up artist.

    May the truth set us free of this awful mess that is NBC News 2015.

    • Don Holyfield says:

      Lest we not forget we not forget, the 1992 big lie fostered by ABC in the General Motors focuusing on the alligations that General Motors’ C/K-series chevrolet pickup exploded on impactwhen involved in collisions due to poor design of the vehicles fuel tanks. This articlecan be found at NBC-Wilkpedia .
      General Motors vs. NBC

      On November 17, 1992, Dateline NBC aired an hour-long investigative report titled “Waiting to Explode,” which focused on allegations that General Motors’ Rounded-Line Chevrolet C/K-Series pickup trucks exploded upon impact when involved in collisions due to the poor design of the vehicle model’s fuel tanks. Dateline ’​s footage showed a sample of a low-speed accident in which the fuel tank exploded; the explosion during the crash test would later be discovered to have been rigged by producers with the program, who placed remotely controlled model rocket engines inside the truck’s fuel tank to initiate the blast. The program did not disclose the fact that the accident was staged.

      GM hired investigators from Failure Analysis Associates (FaAA, now Exponent) to study the footage; FaAA investigators discovered while reviewing the video that smoke had actually started to expel from the fuel tank six frames before the actual impact occurred. Acting on a tip from someone involved with the Dateline crash test, investigators with FaAA searched through 22 junkyards in Indiana before finding the charred wreckage of the GM pickups.[9][10]

      It was also later revealed that the Dateline report had been dishonest about the fuel tanks rupturing and the alleged 30 miles per hour (48 km/h) speed at which the collision was conducted. The actual speed was found to be higher than stated, around 40 miles per hour (64 km/h), and after x-ray examination of the fuel tanks from the C/K pickups used in the televised collision, it was found that they had not ruptured and were intact.[11][12] GM subsequently filed an anti-defamation/libel lawsuit against NBC after conducting an extensive investigation. On February 8, 1993, GM conducted a highly publicized point-by-point rebuttal in the Product Exhibit Hall of the General Motors Building in Detroit that lasted nearly two hours after announcing the lawsuit.[13] The lawsuit was settled by NBC that same week, and Dateline co-anchor Jane Pauley read a 3½ minute on-air apology to viewers.

      The General Motors lawsuit and the subsequent settlement were arguably the most devastating blows for NBC in a series of reputation damaging incidents during the 1990s and early 2000s. Within NBC, Michael Gartner, who resigned under pressure shortly after the incident, was the source for much of the blame. NBC News President Reuven Frank stated Gartner was hired in 1988, despite having no background in television news, in an attempt to satisfy parent company General Electric, by replacing current journalists with cheaper, less experienced reporters and producers.[14]

      In addition to the resignation of the news division’s president Gartner, three Dateline NBC producers were dismissed as a result of the incident and the findings of the resulting investigation: executive producer Jeff Diamond, senior producer David Rummel, and Robert Read, producer of the report on the pickups. Michele Gillen, the correspondent involved in the segment, was transferred to NBC’s Miami owned-and-operated station WTVJ, where she became an anchor of the station’s evening newscasts.

      How can anyone trust this network? This problem did not start with Brian Williams. Who belives tht the network brass at NBC was not aware of what Brian Williams his crew and others were up to? NBC needs a house cleaning.

More TV News from Variety

Loading