NBC News went into damage-control mode a day after the public symbol of the network, anchor Brian Williams, faced a torrent of derision and criticism for telling a story about his wartime reporting that has proved to be untrue.
As public disapproval roared on social media, NBC sought to protect and defend Williams, its lead anchor since 2004 and the most popular anchor in the nation.
Williams conceded Wednesday that he confused an incident in March 2003 as he and an NBC crew were embedded with U.S. troops at the start of the invasion of Iraq. Williams has said on several occasions that he was traveling in a U.S. military helicopter when it was damaged by rocket fire. Instead, Williams acknowledged this week, he was in a second helicopter that was not damaged and that he had “conflated” his memory of the two aircraft. He apologized on Wednesday’s broadcast of “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams.”
NBC’s response to the revelation has been a non-response, at least publicly. The news division, including President Deborah Turness, made no public statements about Williams on Thursday, and no disciplinary measures or internal investigation have been disclosed — an otherwise routine practice for news organizations faced with high-profile misfeasance or malfeasance. Williams assumed his regular anchoring role for Thursday’s evening news broadcast.
“You could say it’s business as usual,” one NBC executive said. “He has the whole support of NBC.”
This executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment on behalf of the network, said NBC News’s top managers were surprised to learn that Williams’s story was in error after he posted an apology to several service members on NBC News’s Facebook page over the weekend. The executive said that an informal inquiry probably will be carried out, but the working assumption was that Williams had made “an honest mistake, which he’s now apologized for.”
NBC insiders, meanwhile, pointed reporters to supportive interviews and statements on behalf of Williams, including a Facebook posting by Lance Reynolds, the flight engineer on the helicopter that took two rocket hits. Reynolds wrote: “I appreciate the timely response by Brian Williams to correct the story and set the record straight. I would not want to speculate on why the mistake was made. I personally accept his apology.”
NBC’s response suggests that it will attempt to ride out public criticism of Williams and hope that it hasn’t damaged his standing among viewers and advertisers.
The network has huge financial reasons for hoping the controversy goes away. “Nightly News” is the lone bright spot in NBC’s otherwise troubled news division. The newscast anchored by Williams remains the national leader, although its ratings lead has been threatened by ABC’s “World News Tonight,” anchored by David Muir.
At the same time, the long-dominant “Today” show has slipped further behind ABC’s “Good Morning America” in the lucrative morning news race, and “Meet the Press” continues to lag CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday mornings.
Williams is one of NBC’s most expensive assets. In December, he signed a five-year contract with the network with a salary reportedly in excess of $10 million a year.
People who have worked with Williams say he does not regularly embellish personal stories but does project a kind of confident swagger that can be off-putting. One former colleague said he enjoys throwing around military slang, such as using “bird” for helicopter, despite never having served in the armed forces. He also likes to discuss the nuances of firefighting; he is a longtime volunteer.
Despite the negative reaction, Williams probably will survive in his job, said Andrew Tyndall, who has tracked network news through his Tyndall Report newsletter for nearly three decades.
“At the moment,” he said, “it looks like the people who are the most outraged are the people who were predisposed to hate him in the first place. This will become a crisis when the people who’ve always liked him and supported him start to turn on him.”
Tyndall said Williams’s misstatement does not reflect gross journalistic malpractice, but it might suggest a character flaw.
“It may make him seem self-serving or vainglorious or unappealing, but there wasn’t some attempt to deceive people about the nature of the Iraq war,” he said. “If people start to perceive him as unserious, if they think he’s Ted Baxter, yes, then he’d be fired. But he’s apologized and tried to set things right.”
He drew a distinction between Williams’s behavior and the controversies surrounding CBS correspondent Lara Logan and former CBS News anchor Dan Rather. Logan was forced to take a leave of absence in 2013 after producing a “60 Minutes” story about the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that relied on a false eyewitness. Rather ultimately lost his job as anchor after airing a flawed report on “60 Minutes II” during the 2004 presidential campaign about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service. Rather and Logan’s stories were “sins of journalistic consequence,” Tyndall said, whereas Williams primarily reflected badly on his personal integrity.
Over the years, Williams has offered several variations of his wartime story. During an emotional on-air tribute to a retiring veteran last week and in a 2013 appearance on CBS’s “Late Show With David Letterman,” he said his helicopter was damaged by rocket fire. The news segment last week prompted complaints from the soldiers who flew the two helicopters, leading Williams to apologize.
But Williams has also given accurate and more ambiguous accounts of the helicopter episode, such as in a 2008 blog post. In 2005, at an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Williams recounted, “I guess the combat was three days underway when the helicopter I was flying on was shot at,” according to an account in the Los Angeles Times published at the time.
This was apparently accurate — the pilot of Williams’s helicopter told CNN on Thursday that his aircraft had been hit by small-arms fire at one point. This version of the story also stopped short of suggesting that his helicopter had been hit with two RPGs, as the first helicopter was.
For a video, go to wapo.st/WhatWilliamsGotWrong.