By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Can Brian Williams recover from his false Iraq tale?

Brian Williams. Photo via Wikipedia.

Brian Williams. Photo via Wikipedia.

Published previously at

Update, 8:30 p.m. Williams, in his apology, conceded that the story he had been telling was false — that his helicopter was not fired on and landed safely. Yet the pilot of Williams’ helicopter is now offering an account that’s close enough to Williams’ original story that we might all be tempted to say “never mind.”

The mainstream press this morning is stepping gingerly around Brian Williams’ literally incredible mea culpa about (not) coming under fire in Iraq 12 years ago.

Ravi Somaiya of The New York Times reports that the NBC News anchor “apologized for mistakenly claiming” his helicopter had been shot down. The Washington Post — which, unlike the Times, plays it on page one — is more forthright in saying that Williams “conceded” his story was “false.” But reporter Paul Fahri goes to some lengths not to get ahead of developments.

Not that you can blame either news organization for its caution. Williams is a certified icon of broadcast journalism, and no doubt NBC will go to great lengths to protect him. If Williams is disgraced, so is the network’s news division. It would take years to recover. But what happens next is largely out of NBC’s and Williams’ hands.

As first reported Wednesday by the military news organization Stars and Stripes, Williams has said a military helicopter that was transporting him in Iraq was hit by rocket fire and forced down. Stars and Stripes reporter Travis J. Tritten writes: “Williams and his camera crew were actually aboard a Chinook in a formation that was about an hour behind the three helicopters that came under fire, according to crew member interviews.”

Yikes. Williams, in addressing viewers on Wednesday, called his version a “mistake,” adding: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

In a timeline for CNN put together by media reporter Brian Stelter, it appears that though Williams spoke and wrote about the incident with varying degrees of inaccuracy over the years, the first time he told a clearly false version was in 2013 on David Letterman’s show.

This looks like a serious lapse of ethical judgment on Williams’ part. I find it hard to believe it was an honest mistake. How can you believe that you were flying on a helicopter that came under fire when you actually were on one that landed safely an hour later?

And I need to emphasize this: It wasn’t just a personal tale that Williams embellished — it was journalism. After all, the essence of journalism, as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen puts it, is “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” Williams was there, we weren’t, and he gave us a false account.

Not everyone is being as cautious as the Times and the Post. Writing last night in the Baltimore Sun, David Zurawik began: “If credibility means anything to NBC News, Brian Williams will no longer be managing editor and anchor of the evening newscast by the end of the day Friday.”

My own sense is that it’s too early to say whether Williams could or even should lose his job over this — although, barring a major exculpatory revelation, it doesn’t look good. Regardless, we have certainly come a long way from the days when an anchorman, Walter Cronkite, could be called “the most trusted man in America.”

Whatever else happens, Williams has permanently forfeited any such claims for himself.

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  1. We expect only politicians to lie about their brushes with death in war torn lands.

  2. Reminiscent of Hillary Clinton’s claim that she was shot at while landing in Bosnia in 1996 when she was First Lady. Could it be the fog of war?

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Marjorie: Williams used to tell a truthful version of what happened. The fog of lying?

  3. Effie Stewart

    Really??? He could keep his job? Surely there are consequences for employees, even icons who make 10 million a year ( so says Wikipedia), who blatantly lie about a major news story about being shot down by enemy fire and then, to make matters even worse, perpetuate the lie on the Letterman show and again in the hockey arena with bright lights on him. I think he is done.

  4. Do you mean as a news-journalist? A News Anchor? Why should he ‘recover’? He should Intern… in retail sales. Maybe Men’s suits at Macy’s. Sales training 101: “If you’re selling blue suits, turn on the blue-lights.” Williams is a eloquent fraud under-pancake-makeup, caught in his own clique-lights.

  5. cynthiastead

    CBS fabricates documents, NBC fabricates memories. Thank heavens a disillusioned nation can turn to….David Muir?

  6. Rich Kenney

    And it is now circulating that there is tape of his report of seeing bodies floating by him in the French Quarter during Hurricane Katrina. Only problem? The French Quarter didn’t flood. He’s done.

  7. whatwasithinking

    Meanwhile FOX News and their correspondents make it their mode of operation to constantly lie. Oh, wait, I forgot – FOX is not real news, so they can lie with no repercussions. No, no, no, wait again…The fact is, FOX has the franchise on lying – they and only they are allowed to lie. Anybody else caught making a mistake is actually being blamed for infringing on the FOX News brand. Lets get real, folks.

    • Peter Sullivan

      No argument here that Fox News is a biased news organization……. But that really has no relevance to the discussion at hand……. You sound like a five year old saying but Mom, the other guys did it too!!!!!!

  8. In the reading of the Page 1, NY Times article re: ‘faux-news-reader’ Brian Williams: ‘Williams Digs Himself Deeper’/ PA Pundits – International, I was reminded of the Roald Dahl quote: “If you have an imagination you’ll never be alone.” Of course Dahl, author of “Charlie & the Chocolate Factory”, and later, “Charlie & the Glass Elevator” never probably ‘dreamed’ a CQ ‘best-dressed’ Williams would take the Willie Wonka celluloid version quite so literally and go for a ride in The Good Ship Lollipop, or crash in a glass-elevator. THIS is really not sad. At $10 million annually, another good-looking ‘News-Reader’ can be found. Maybe if one were less-attractive ALL we’d pay more attention to the banality of today’s news; aggregated and curated for the future Williams-lite to read.

  9. Mike Rice


  10. I like Brian Williams, but he might be a little too hungry for the spotlight. I saw him emceeing a Nantucket Film Festival event a couple of years back. Kind of funny, for a really good-looking person.

    Of course, I was lucky to get there at all, as the Cape Air cropduster I was in took on heavy anti-aircraft fire …

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