Williams Under Fire (A Different Kind of Fire)

Brian Williams, announcer at NBC

image courtesy of NBC News

Williams Under Fire (A Different Kind of Fire)
| published February 7, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

Brian Williams, anchor of NBC News since 2005, may be the most popular face of the evening news in the last decade, especially after the recent departure of Diane Sawyer from ABC News. But the genial, likeable, even-handed deliverer of the Nightly News has problems which appear now to be causing damage to his credibility as the nation’s number one-rated news anchor. Late Saturday, Williams released a statement in which he said he would be stepping aside temporarily, with Lester Holt acting as his replacement until a brouhaha over Williams' trustworthiness has passed.

NBC Universal, which is owned by Comcast, has launched an internal probe into the matter of Williams’ recent statements regarding a 2003 trip to Iraq. In a recent on-air tribute to American servicemen he had met while reporting from Iraq, Williams apparently falsely claimed to have been transported in a helicopter which was hit by rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) fire, forcing the Chinook helicopter to land. In fact, as it turns out, Williams was riding in a second helicopter when the first chopper—part of a convoy—was hit. Williams has repeated the anecdote off and on for a couple of years, but it was his most recent retellings (within the last weeks) which apparently caught the attention of those familiar with the incident.

When several websites devoted to military matters published emails, articles and comments by many of the soldiers who remember Williams’ visit to Iraq, those reports contradicted Williams’ claim. Weeks later, Williams made an on-air apology for what he called a lapse of memory, suggesting that in his effort to applaud the hard work of U.S. servicemen and women, his retelling of the event had become fogged over time. Williams has further apologized to NBC News staff for causing them embarrassment and for damaging the news team’s credibility—deemed for years by some journalism outsiders as generally more reliable than closest competitors ABC, CBS and Fox.

But Williams’ live apology during the news has not been enough to subdue the criticism coming seemingly from all directions—and not just his competitors at the other networks. Criticism continues to grow, and now NBC News is facing harsh criticism for what many are calling a serious infraction of journalistic ethics.

NBC News division president Deborah Turness announced the internal investigation on Friday, and she has charged Richard Esposito—a former employee of the New York Daily News, New York Newsday, and ABC News—to manage the matter, and, it is hoped at NBC, bring closure to the issue. Though it seems unlikely that NBC would immediately terminate Williams as lead anchor and managing editor, roles he has occupied since 2005, his long term position at the network may be in jeopardy. Esposito will apparently look closely at the recollections of those who have heard retellings of the story over the years to determine how the anecdote has evolved over time, and whether Williams himself has sought to distort or embellish the story.

Williams recounting of the RPG attack on the helicopter has, for many observers, brought to mind a similar retelling of harrowing stories told by Hillary Clinton, who, as Secretary of State said she had once landed at an airport in Bosnia while under fire from small arms and snipers. Clinton described having to run with her head down in order to get into military vehicles where she and her contingent could be whisked to safety. Later, Clinton was forced to recant the story as false when numerous witnesses said no such “sniper-fire” incident occurred. Video footage also emerged of that same airport landing, and Clinton could be seen calmly walking, head held high, with no apparent concern for gunfire.

In the meantime, Williams’ fate may be in the hands of top executives at NBC News and NBC. NBC Nightly News is one of the network’s strongest performers, routinely winning it ratings wars with rivals CBS and ABC. A future NBC Nightly News would be cloudy in a world without Brian Williams.

Williams rose to the position of lead anchor after the retirement of Tom Brokaw in late 2004. NBC parent company Comcast has not made any comments publicly on the matter, but some media experts say that Comcast may weigh-in on the controversy by next week.

In his statement released late Saturday, Williams seemed to indicate that his departure would be strictly temporary.

"In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming the news," Williams wrote, "it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions. As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us."

Related Thursday Review articles:

Kings of Content: Why Comcast is Inevitable; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 28, 2014.