WASHINGTON — Sitting in a dark suit and tie on “The Late Show with David Letterman” in 2013, NBC News anchorman Brian Williams recalled the scary day that the Chinook helicopter he was in purportedly took enemy fire during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. “We were in some helicopters, and what we didn’t know is that we were north of the invasion,” Williams recalled. “We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates [River] so the 3rd Infantry [Division] could cross on them. Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in.”
That story — and variations of it that Williams has told over the years — unraveled Wednesday under scrutiny from soldiers who were there that day. He recanted the story in an interview with Stars & Stripes, saying he actually was in another Chinook that was not under fire. Then he apologized on air. The anchorman — one of the nation’s most recognizable journalists — has been widely mocked online since by Internet jokesters. But he also has taken criticism from fellow journalists, particularly those who have spent time in dangerous countries. Consider the following Tweet from David Kenner, who works from Lebanon as the Middle East editor for Foreign Policy magazine:
This Brian Williams story is crazy. You don’t “misremember” whether your helicopter was shot down by an RPG in Iraq.
Or this from Michael Yon, a former Special Forces soldier who later spent years embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as a freelance journalist:
Brian Williams Must Resign — if Mr. Williams does not resign or get fired, I will not link again to NBC
Or this from Josh Smith, a Stars & Stripes correspondent in Afghanistan:
Brian Williams’ lies make journalists look worse.
The reaction is in part a result of the nature of the scandal. Covering combat in person is a significant — and potentially life-changing — event. At least 61 journalists were killed in 2014 doing their jobs, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Twenty-three of them died while covering combat in 2014, compared with 26 in 2012 and 25 in 2013, the committee said. And that’s to say nothing of situations such as the executions of James Foley, Steven Sotloff and other journalists at the hands of militant groups like the Islamic State.
As one who has spent several months in southern Afghanistan covering the U.S. infantry, walking foot patrols and occasionally coming under fire, I cringed when I saw the story about Williams.
Virtually any time a journalist is invited to speak before a group of U.S. troops or veterans, we are asked where we get our stories and how we verify our information. Building trust is a significant challenge, especially in a unit that is working with an unknown embedded journalist in a dangerous place.
Williams now saying that he “misremembers” what appears to be such a memorable event does nothing to help the problem. His actions will be added to a long list of incidents that the troops bring up when talking about military journalism, from Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera being kicked out of Iraq in 2003 for revealing future troop movements to Dan Rather resigning as CBS anchor in 2004 after admitting using unverified documents in a story questioning President George W. Bush’s military service.
Williams acknowledged the difficulties that some of his more seasoned colleagues face while covering combat in his 2013 interview with Letterman. He added that he is “not terribly good” at being a war correspondent, but liked to go out on patrol and “get out in it” when he covered the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then he recounted the attack on the Army aircraft.
“No kidding!” Letterman interrupted the newsman, who quickly continued.
“RPG and AK-47,” Williams said, referring to rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire from assault rifles. He added that the helicopters were about 100 feet off the ground and traveling more than 100 mph when hit — a low altitude that would make it remarkable that a powerful RPG didn’t take any of the aircraft down. Williams added that “our captain took a Purple Heart injury to his ear in the cockpit,” but that everyone else was otherwise OK. That also would appear to be untrue.
It’s unclear whether Williams will stay on as a news anchor and managing editor at NBC News. Undeniably, the reputation of one of the nation’s most recognizable newsmen has been jeopardized. This story will be discussed in journalism classes and on military bases for years to come.
Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.