While at first it seemed as if the big question about Brian Williams was why his first person story changed over the years about his being on a helicopter that had been fired upon in Iraq, it seems to me that is not the key issue here.
The key issue is about journalism, and the questions of honest reporting and the fudging the facts. And it all revolves around Williams’ March, 2003 on-air report about what happened when he was embedded during a military helicopter mission in Iraq.
First, you need to watch the videotape of Williams’ original “Dateline” report in March 2003. You can find it here. We’ve had trouble getting it to embed properly here on our site, and have found that it sometimes does not play on this link, which is to NBC News. There is another version, from MRC TV, widely available on the Internet, but that version is a cut-down, incomplete version of the original. [Update at 9:30 a.m, PT on 2-9-15: NBC News appears to have now disabled this link. We urge them to reinstate it. We have found a complete version of the Williams original report on YouTube, but the audio is slightly out-of-sync. Click here to see it. We hope that NBC does not demand that YouTube take it down.]
You can also click here to read a transcript of the Williams’ report. I’ve checked it carefully with the video, and it is accurate (though it omits the last line of the report, which is not relevant to my discussion).
From the moment Tom Brokaw introduces the report, the viewer understands that it’s about peril, specifically the peril Brian Williams found himself in in a war zone: “Our colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies over Iraq. Brian, tell us about what you got yourself into.”
Williams then says, “Well, in the end, Tom, it did give us a glimpse of the war being fought as few have seen it. We asked the US Army to take us on an air mission with them. They accepted. We knew there was risk involved, we knew we would be flying over Iraq, we discussed it. We weren’t cavalier about it.
(Voiceover) We took off and that is right about when things started to happen.
(A Map is seen on the screen)
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) A jagged hole in the skin of a helicopter, a symbol for the unexpected challenges faced by US soldiers in a war that does not always go according to plan.
(Hole in helicopter; helicopter flying)
Unidentified Soldier #1: We took fire on the way in.
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) It all started Monday morning, a round trip that’s supposed to take six hours. Routine, yes, but we’re all aware it’s over Iraqi air space. And in war, routine gets thrown out the window.
Williams then explains that “We are one of four Chinook helicopters flying north this morning, third in line.” He explains — and we see — dangling from his copter is a huge piece of steel that’s meant to be part of a bridge.
Soon, Williams’ voiceover tell us “Indeed, just before we’re able to make the drop, radio traffic makes clear this routine mission is running into trouble.
On the screen we see the steel beneath the copter. The voiceover radio voice says “We took fire on the way in. We currently are not under fire-I say again, not under fire—but we look for some type of security, over.”
WILLIAMS: (Voiceover) We quickly make our drop and then turn southwest. Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky. That hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fired from the ground. It punched cleanly through the skin of the ship, but amazingly it didn’t detonate. Though the chopper pilots are too shaken to let us interview them, we learned they were shot at by some of those waving civilians, one of whom emerged from under a tarp on a pick-up truck like this one and shot the grenade. We meet a unit from the 3rd Infantry called in, as it turns out, to protect us from the enemy which they say doesn’t look like the enemy.
(As Williams is saying all this we are seeing a steel bridge section being dropped; aerial view of countryside; helicopter and soldiers on ground; hole in helicopter; helicopter with hole in it; helicopter and tanks; truck with gun mounted on back; tank and soldiers.)
Combine the tight editing of the arresting visuals with Williams’ narrative and the radio voiceover, and you’ve got one dramatic, powerful report.
But then, over the weekend, I was reading some of the coverage of the Williams story in Stars and Strips newspaper online, and on one of the pages it had a tab about related stories. One of them said “From the archives: Stripes reporter interviewed the Chinook crews after the 2003 incident.”
Since I had recently watched Williams’ 2003 on-air report, I thought I’d click on the link and read the story in Stars and Stripes that was filed around the same time. Neither report would have the disadvantage of people talking about what had happened more than a decade in the past.
The Stars and Stripes story, also from 2003, can be found here, and it’s an eye-opener.
It tells the story of three Chinook helicopters. Unlike the helicopters Williams’ describes, these helicopters were not transporting any steel bridge parts. Instead, the article noted, slinging below them were “containers of critical spare parts for 11th Aviation Regiment Apache Longbow helicopters damaged in a firefight the night before.”
In the second Chinook, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Randy Summerlin “felt a shudder in the aircraft, and a big boom,” he told Stars and Stripes.
The article continues:
“He couldn’t see what happened, but some of the crew in the lead aircraft did.
“The first missile had hit the sling load, exploding that stuff,” said Lt. Col. Jerry Pearman of Merrillville, Ind., the Task Force’s executive officer and a passenger in the first Chinook. “It probably saved their lives.”
They weren’t out of danger yet. A second missile ripped into the back of Summerlin’s aircraft, tearing a softball-sized hole.
“It opened up like a can opener,” said Staff Sgt. Michael O’Keeffe, 33, of Wakefield, Mass., the Chinook’s door-gunner. “Thank God it didn’t detonate.”
Two AK-47 rounds hit them, too. One penetrated an electrical panel behind Rekow’s seat, setting off whistles and alarms. The second pierced the left side of the aft ramp and caromed off a strut in the cabin”
One of the soldiers in the helicopter was hit in the cheek.
Says Stars and Stripes, “With all three helicopters hearing gunfire and one hit, the convoy headed west toward open country — and an ever-worsening storm. The third one jettisoned its containers of parts, pulled up and disappeared. (The other crews later learned it had returned to Camp Udairi.)”
Soon, the first Chinook landed and its crew were rescued. The second Chinook, which had sustained the enemy fire, kept going.“ ‘Hitting a wall of sand, the last Chinook felt its way toward base, low and slow,’ wrote Stars and Stripes. ‘Damage to the aircraft had affected its ability to brake on landing. It limped to a stretch of pavement at the aviation base, landing hot and fast. Summerlin said the landing roll, normally 100 feet or less, stretched to a quarter mile.’”
In this account, there is no mention of the Chinooks that were part of Brian Williams’ convoy. That’s because, it appears, they were separate operations. It appears that at one point they might have crossed one another, and Williams’ Chinook ended up landing near the one that had been fired upon. (Though at least one of the soldiers has said Williams’ Chinook didn’t land until at least a half hour later.)
But as some of the soldiers who were in the convoy that ran into enemy fire have recently told Stars and Stripes, Williams and his NBC crew were not part of their convoy, and were not right behind the helicopter that was fired upon, as Williams reported. The flight engineer of Williams’ helicopter said the NBC crew recorded the radio chatter that was coming from the other convoy.
Having watched Williams’ 2003 report a number of times now, there is no confusion that what he is clearly reporting is that there is just a single convoy of four helicopters and that he was in a Chinook directly behind the one that was attacked.
According to what a number of soldiers told Stars and Stripes back in 2003 and again last week, that’s just not true. (Some of them talked to The New York Times last week as well, And one spoke to the New York Post.) Though David Carr, the media columnist for The New York Times, writes this morning that “It’s useful to note that Mr. Williams initially reported the story fundamentally as it had happened — although the soldiers on hand say he exaggerated the danger to himself even then….” Having seen Williams’ 2003 report, and having read the soldiers’ version in Stars and Stripes, if the soldiers version is correct, then Mr. Carr is just plain wrong, because Williams did not report the facts as he knew them to be true.
And that’s a big problem for Williams and for NBC News. At best, Williams might say he was trying to “simplify” what really happened by maintaining the “spirit” of the events, as he tried to compress what happened into a fairly short, comprehensive report of about five minutes in length.
The problem with that is that it is not what we do in journalism. One doesn’t change actual events in an effort to simplify things. That may be OK for a fictional treatment of what happened, or for a docudrama, but not a news report.
Howard Kurtz, the longtime media critic, wrote over the weekend that “[A]ccording to [a] source, NBC is not conducting an internal investigation of its anchor, as has been widely reported. The network is engaging in journalistic fact-gathering so it can respond to questions about the crisis created by Williams’ false story about having been in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. That means there will be no report with a finding on his conduct, this person says.”
Given the fact that a network anchor must be trustworthy, it makes no sense for NBC News to treat Williams as being above accountability, the No. 1 ratings status of his “Nightly News” notwithstanding.
NBC News executives would be remiss to ignore these words of Edward R. Murrow: “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful. It is as simple as that.”