In his weekly column David Carr of the New York Times wrote this about NBC’s Brian Williams troubled tale of getting shot at in a helicopter over Iraq in 2003.
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 — and over time, as he retold it, he moved into the middle of it, so that the story became something that happened to him. All those 1 percent enhancements add up and can leave the teller a long way from the truth.
It’s true that over time Brian Williams moved himself closer to the center of the story so that it “became something that happened to him.” But this motion — the one percent enhancements — began earlier than most of the reporting has so far said. (For example, today on his CNN program Brian Stelter said that Williams began to embellish the story in 2007.)
Today, a PressThink reader sent me this link. It’s from a book NBC published in 2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom: the Insider story. On p. 71 we find a photo of Brian Williams with some soldiers. The caption reads:
With NBC anchor Brian Williams, producer Justin Balding, and analyst General Wayne Balding, retired, aboard, Army Chinook helicopters are forced to make a desert landing after being attacked by Iraqi Fedayeen. For two nights, the NBC crew and their Army unit waited out the fierce sandstorm in the desert.
That says: With Williams and crew aboard, Chinook helicopters were forced to land after being attacked from the ground. But what we know now from the pilots involved is different: The Chinook helicopters with Williams and crew aboard were forced to land after getting caught in a sandstorm. (See these interviews with the pilots by CNN’s Stelter.) So right there the “moving to the middle” that Carr wrote about began: in September of 2003.
On the page before that (p. 70) the text says:
Producer Justin Balding recalls, “One of the chopper crews ahead of us spotted a pickup truck. As the Iraqis waved, a man suddenly ripped off the tarpaulin to reveal another man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He took aim and fired.”
This describes as one mission what we now know was two: one 15 to 30 minutes behind the other, according to the pilots.
I would not call these massive discrepancies, or startling discoveries. But they do bear on a point I made in my last post. The involvement of other NBC personnel in misdescribing what went on that day is part of what makes this episode so disturbing.
Now add to that a small detail that Ed Morrissey of Hot Air and Jake Tapper of CNN picked up on. The original report that aired on NBC in 2003 edits in audio from another mission in a way that almost makes it sound like the flight that carried Williams came under fire. Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten explains:
I spoke with the flight engineer on Williams’ Chinook, Joseph Miller, and what he told me is that Williams and the NBC crew, actually, they’d been given a headset and they had taken a microphone, and they had put it in the earpiece of the headset so that they could pick up the radio communications between the company that they were in and another company of Chinooks that was flying a separate mission in the opposite direction. So what you’re hearing is that radio chatter from that other company that was coming under fire.
To hear the audio jump to 3:50 in this clip from Tapper’s show:
Again: this is not earth-shattering evidence of deception. I am trying not to make too much of it. What it shows, I think, is that the “conflation” that Brian Williams described in his apology last week began with the first report in 2003, and built from there. Other NBC people were involved from the beginning. The question is why.
I just assume all embedded journalists at that point were playing their roles in the propaganda machine, which is nothing but embellishments from the moment the stage lights come on. Embellishing reality to engage the public is basically the job most of the time, but never more so than during war.
Maybe the Williams mea culpa will come with some mad-as-hell reveal? A belated reckoning that comes as little surprise to everyone who long ago abandoned the theater of big-narrative newsmen.
This event will be printed in textbooks in the future on how to ruin your career. Taking every opportunity to crowbar your “war” stories into conversations with everybody from Letterman to Baldwin to high school reporters was too rich and delicious to ignore . (If there is tape of him on Oprah then I’ll believe there is a God.)
How do you turn a blunder into a steamy hot bowl of mess? Simply lie about your lie, deflect with your patriotism, and sprinkle in some fancy words to make us feel embarrassed for opening up a dictionary. It’s always the cover up, my friends, that will bite you and not let go.
I see three groups in NBC in this matter. One or two may have actively–using technical means–aided Williams in his efforts. Somewhat more–the traveling support group–knew better but also knew you take a shot at the Big Kahuna. Worth your job.
The third group knows about it one way or another but figures it’s better not to say anything because of NBC’s rep.
I can’t agree with you on several points.
First, I see this as a case of personal aggrandizement, the kind of exaggeration we all fall into, be it on our resumes or in our anecdotes.
That’s because I’ve read several books, especially Loftus, on recall and memory and can see the phenomenon in myself. Memories are malleable. Over time we add, manipulate, change how we recall certain events. The changes become part of the memory. I’ve read several different timelines of Williams’ story, and, as you point out, we can see small changes over time that add up to a more gross distortion of the facts. Now, I don’t know when or if or how often Williams knowingly exaggerated what happened but I suspect there are few, if any, people living who couldn’t be called to account for an entire series of “enhanced” recalls.
Second: it wasn’t just NBC technical staff who participated in this “fraud” but also soldiers who, presumably, had nothing to fear from confronting Williams about his misstatements. I also find it curious that there was no gossip about what really happened.
Third, I don’t think Letterman or anybody else had to be complicit in Williams’ retelling of this story. It became part of his shtick, something he pulled out during interviews and, probably, did a little enhancing of each time he told the story – as do we all. (I’ve sometimes heard authors on book tours pulling out the same anecdotes, all sounding fresh and new each time, in interview after interview.)
Compared to the media’s total failure with respect to Iraq and torture, this is another trivial “scandal” blown up all out of proportion to its importance.
I also think the idea of Williams doing an on-air investigation himself is absurd. I can’t imagine anything more mortifying to watch, or less likely to produce the truth, than such a public shaming of himself. “Please, beat me. In public.”
And, lastly, I long ago lost any confidence that any of our news anchors or most of our reporters search for and report the truth. They are engaged in political gossip, nothing more, nothing less. They are microphones, stenographers for politicians. If they find something wrong that can be turned into the “scandal de jour”, they will milk it for all it’s worth. But it will blow over to be replaced by yet another half-baked “-gate”.
Excellent post. I especially agree with your last paragraph. It reminded me of Karl Kraus’s observation that “politicians lie to the press and then believe what they read.” A friend of mine told me what an army officer once told him about telling war stories: ” Always tell them about someone else; never about yourself” precisely because of memory issues.
Yes,, I didn’t talk about war stories in general, but the army officer’s recommendation is on point. I’m sure that many military men understate their roles, that others never talk about what they did, but throughout history we can be certain that some have exaggerated their roles. One’s companion takes out a sniper and in the retelling over years it turns into “we” took out the sniper.
L. Caution. Not sure what the soldiers have to do with this. Imagine a soldier calling up NBC and trying to get through the various operators to tell on Williams. After which, the person he eventually tells runs to the big shooters who immediately go public with it.
Gossip? Who listens to soldiers, unless there’s a big story in it discrediting the US? Certainly not journos hearing a story discrediting other journos.
I have had some dicey things happen to me here and there and I am automatically careful not to embellish. It’s not even an effort. It just happens. My memory may have changed in detail–mainly lost–but I look no more like a stud elk now than I did then. I submit this is by far the more common trait. In addition, as somebody said, you don’t score the winning touchdown and, thirty years later, think you were on the bench. This stuff only goes one way. And when you start to include the Katrina nonsense, you know it’s made up, not misrembered.
Well, it appears that the reason the story broke now is because of soldiers objecting to the inaccuracies. Why now? Why not then?
The news business at this level, well any business at this level, runs to a certain extent on gossip and backstabbing. Merit may play some role in one’s career, but building the right alliances, stabbing somebody else before you are stabbed, is also a big part of the game.
That the NBC crew with Williams didn’t talk among themselves or to others about the embellishments at the time in Williams’ reporting suggests to me that they didn’t think it was important, that it wasn’t out of the ordinary.
L. Caution. When I referred to the troops calling up NBC, I was making the point, which I guess I missed, that they wouldn’t bother. From what I understand from the young guys, they think less of journos than we did forty years ago. Wouldn’t have been worth the phone call to get sneered at. So they didn’t.
It’s been reported that the bigs at NBC knew BW was a BSer and whether they knew anything about this case is up in the air. But, apparently, they wouldn’t have been surprised. Except for the reaction of the lower orders, which always surprises them.
There was a report that BW, who sits on some committee having to do with the Medal of Honor, blew off a meeting to get some publicity on a television show. That would get the troops’ attention and not in a good way.
Either the techs with Williams didn’t say anything, which would tell you about the NBC culture, or they did, which would tell you about the NBC culture.
Remember, this is the bunch which inflated the estate of the late Richard Jewell, got busted editing George Zimmerman’s recorded conversations with the cops, and blew up trucks. BW’s RPG adventure would, in context, be a mere bag of shells.
Yes, you’ve nailed it. If people knew, they didn’t think it was a big deal which does say much about the culture.
And, to be fair to Williams, he never claimed that he saved a platoon, or was inordinately brave. He simply claimed he had been under fire and came out OK thanks to the military. As resumé padding goes, that’s fairly mild.
But I do wonder how many journos are rapidly reviewing every one of their own anecdotes for exaggerations that could come home to bite them. I suspect they would fill a decent-sized book.
Wrt the sniper. The sniper’s companion is the spotter and it’s usually a matter of “we”.
As I said in the preceding thread, sometimes putting yourself into something dramatic means the story is, in fact, changed. For example, when Hillary claimed to come under sniper fire at Tuzla, it meant the perimeter had a radius of no more than a mile and a half. That means something objective and misrepresents the actual situation. So when you have to make yourself the middle of a story, sometimes you actually change the story. Otherwise there’s no story.
And, of course, putting himself into the middle of drama in NOLA likely misrepresented the situation on the ground, thereby misleading the viewers. So, depending on the situation, it can be more than simply resume-padding.
Swiftboating: a proposed definition —
Wherein one with ambitions to an elite political or professional status recognizes that a brush with danger on the battlefield — even though such bravado happens to be unrelated to the skills required for the elevated position being aspired to — nonetheless enhances his chances of achieving such ambition…
…wherein success in pursuing said ambition amplifies and exacerbates the gap in social status between the military veterans who shared that battlefield experience and the power-seeking individual in question, generating natural resentments and ordinary envy…
…wherein that lack of solidarity is compounded by suspicions of bad faith and ulterior motives, in that the battlefield experience has been exploited for the purposes of personal advancement rather than simple truthtelling…
…wherein such suspicions of exploitation are compounded by routine gilding of the lily and inevitable clouding of memories over the years, not to speak of good faith differences in perception and point of view about the underlying incident from the very start…
Swiftboating happens when the exploitation of the underlying incident for personal advancement appears to those already resenting it to be so egregiously self-serving that they mobilize themselves as a group, with the assistance of forces who are already predisposed to undermine the ambitious individual, to challenge the account of bravado in a concerted fashion with inflammatory vigor and ad hominem venom.
cf: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance by John Ford
Cross of Iron by Sam Peckinpah
Are you proposing the Iraq helicopter crews are swiftboating Brian Williams? He gilded the lily but they are motivated by envy and resentment?
As a former Freelance Camera and Editor both on my own, and for the networks and CNN during the 80s and 90s, I am also very interested in exactly who were in the crew accompanying Williams and Balding for that particular story, and why they have remained silent until now. I can tell you from my own experience, that including audio from an entirely different event into the package would result in a great deal of resistance not only from the producer, but from the editor him/herself. In all my experience nothing like that has ever been asked of me, or even hinted at. It would take a very conscious and premeditated series of decisions to obtain from both the correspondent, and the producer, approval of the editing seen and heard in that piece. Very cleverly misleading, but absolutely deliberate in its intention to mislead.