Brian Williams and the Smoking Gun That Isn't

It's not about misremembering or lying; it's about millions in ad revenue and the sanctity of network news

If we can accept the possibility that Brian Williams did not write the copy he read on the air, the argument against him crumbles. Credit: Jessica Burstein/Corbis

TV news is smoke and mirrors. We are supposed to forget that. It is presented to us so seamlessly. Here is a man we trust, an omniscient man (sometimes a woman, but not often), telling us the story of the days' events. In many ways, it is a cultural role as old as language. Brian Williams is the storyteller, the bard. He possesses special knowledge. He imparts the oral history.

But it is an illusion. There are executive producers and senior producers and package producers and field producers and associate producers and production assistants and correspondents and camera operators and audio technicians and tape editors and graphics editors and broadcast techs and floor directors and writers. The television newsroom is spectacular chaos. I have always marveled at how much effort goes into making a product seem effortless. A live newscast is an orchestra disguised as a solo performance.

There is big money at stake. The bard is worth five years and $50 million to his employer. He is watched by over nine million people each day. No mistake can be tolerated. No apology is good enough. It is all grist for the mill, and it is a pretty impressive mill. The pressure, in the space of a week, is intolerable. The bard is a charlatan. Sir Thomas More could not have summoned such an array of charges. The network is conducting its own investigation. A rival network says it is conducting an investigation, too. Why not? Kick 'em while they're down.

And all it took was one sentence.

Cue the video. "The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq. . ." Williams is looking at us, reading us the news. The visuals cut to video, his voice continues, ". . .when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit with an RPG."

Wait. Pause. Rewind. Observe how Williams is reading off the teleprompter (he does it very well, you hardly notice). Williams almost certainly reads his copy before he says it on the air, but he also has no reason to be suspicious about the copy for this story. He has not been accused of lying yet. Maybe he glosses over it. Of the things he is worried about that day, this story, just a guess, probably is not one of them. 

Williams tells us about his friend, Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak, a 24-year army veteran, and fellow New York Rangers fan, who once guarded the lives of Williams and his crew in Iraq.

"So last night I invited him to see the Rangers and Canadiens game at Madison Square Garden," Williams says. "It was merely a chance to be reunited, but the Rangers had other plans, as Tim realized when we looked up and saw our picture on the big screen."

The stadium announcer proclaims, "Ladies and gentlemen, during the Iraq invasion U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak was responsible for the safety of Brian Williams and his NBC news team after their Chinook helicopter was hit and crippled by enemy fire."

This is an inaccuracy, what my Introduction to Reporting professor in college would call an error of fact. The Chinook that Williams and his NBC news team flew was not, in fact, "crippled" by enemy fire.

Williams embraces Terpak as Terpak receives a standing ovation; 18,000 people clap and cheer. Terpak chokes back tears. He mouths, "Thank you." Williams pats him on the shoulder, he leans into his right ear and says something. You have to be considerably more cynical than the most hardened ideologue not to feel a stirring of emotion. The video belies the central accusation: Williams appears humble and generous, overjoyed to celebrate the man who once protected his life in the middle of the Iraqi desert during a two-day sandstorm.

There is a difference between an error and a lie. A lie implies intent to deceive. However, it has now been repeated twice in the span of 90 seconds. That the second time it is uttered is by the New York Rangers public address announcer is of little relevance to the final result – Williams might as well have said it because that is the effect, the perception, a lie told and then a minute later the lie perpetuated. Of course in reality things did not happen in that order. The chronology of the way it is presented is reversed.

Let's work backwards. Here is a more plausible scenario: a producer produces the package, gathers the video, writes a script. A tape editor puts it together. A writer watches it. The writer listens to the Rangers public address announcement, the writer hears, ". . .after their Chinook helicopter was hit and crippled by enemy fire." The writer's job is to pull out the most interesting, key piece of information. The writer does what writers do, which is punch up the language. This is the result: ". . .when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit with an RPG." Cause. Effect. That is how we go from an inaccuracy to a lie. 

Et voilà, Brian Williams is "caught" lying about his own experience, since he was not in the helicopter struck with the RPG, as he reminded us a few days later. He was, according to him and others, in the helicopter behind the helicopter struck with the RPG. This is the same story he has told for 12 years, a story the essence of which is not in dispute. In the end, it is an error of process, lacking intent to deceive, what we commonly refer to as a mistake. Williams knows it is a mistake, because he characterizes it as such: "I spent much of the weekend thinking I'd gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake. . ." 

Surely, we can accept that Williams did not write the words said by the New York Rangers public address announcer. If we can accept the possibility, or even discover – no one as near as I can tell has thought to ask – that Williams did not write the copy he read on the air, then the entire argument against Williams crumbles.

Because if the words Williams said last week were written by others, then Williams' apparently damning March 2013 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman reads and plays like what it probably is: an awkward conversational exchange on live-to-tape television (that appears to have been edited for time at the critical moment), talking very briefly about an event that took place a decade before, and not an attempt to slide the bar of deception, conscious or unconscious, in the direction of self-aggrandizement. In the Late Show appearance, Williams is quick to deflect, hand out credit to others. He makes no explicit claim that he was in the helicopter hit with the RPG. Nor does he explicitly say he wasn't, but there is not the need to deny a negative.

Chinook helicopters look like clumsy manatees in the sky. First produced in the 1960s, they continue to be prized for their ability to surgically move heavy equipment, troops and supplies. A ride in the back of a Chinook is disorienting. There are open bays on each side, but in combat zones gunners strapped into harnesses block much of the view. It is not advisable for civilian passengers on a Chinook to get too close to open doors. The rear loading ramp often remains open during flight, so sometimes you can see out the back. There are portholes that in the desert are covered in dust and sand. You cannot see much into the cockpit. You cannot see ahead, so you cannot see the periphery. You better have earplugs. You cannot hear anything except the dulled whir of the rotors and the thump of the downdraft. You cannot hear your own voice, which is indistinguishable from the vibrating symphony of hydraulics, gears and riveted, fatigued steel. You have no sense of your location in space. Your ass is sore from sitting on some metal box or directly on the floor. If you can get your hands on a pair of earphones plugged into the comms, then you can hear everything, which is no less disorienting – you still cannot see anything while eavesdropping on the strange language of military aviation in a hostile theater.

The pilot of the Chinook that took the RPG hit, who posted on Facebook that Williams and his camera team didn't show up until an hour later, is no less likely to be misremembering, himself, or perhaps conflating. Certainly, he flew many missions in Iraq. Likely, those four Chinooks would have been flying in convoy formation, at least up until the point of the ground attack, safe distances apart but close enough to maintain visual contact, bracketed by a couple of Apache helicopters, and at least one Blackhawk helicopter or more, depending on how many troops were travelling. Chinooks are transport helicopters that in a live fire zone rely on support helicopters for protection. They do not fly alone, especially flying that low, 100 feet off the ground, on a highly risky mission slinging chunks of concrete bridge across the desert. There is about zero chance four Chinooks on the same mission would be flying more than minutes apart, not an hour. And then there's the wild card: what happens from the moment of engagement, and how it is remembered after?

In a radio interview on Alec Baldwin's "Here's the Thing" on WNYC a few weeks before the Late Show appearance, Williams says, ". . .like being in a helicopter I had no business being in, in Iraq, with rounds coming into the airframe." This is one of the damning allegations against Williams. But it appears to be a true statement, or at least it is corroborated. On CNN last week, Rich Krell, the pilot of the Chinook Williams and his crew flew, said their helicopter did encounter enemy fire. "We took small arms fire, all I know is one RPG was fired and it struck the lead aircraft which was what we call six rotor discs in front of me," the pilot said. Williams "would have been aware of it because the activity of the crew, the door gunners were returning fire." Krell also describes, "the pinging of the bullets hitting us, there were only a few, but it is a distinct sound." The next day, the pilot qualified the statement (though it has been characterized in the headlines as a retraction). "The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories," he said.

Some accounts say there were three Chinooks that day. Some say there were four. One pilot says Williams and his crew was an hour behind. That pilot also said Williams and his team showed up out of nowhere, stuck around for a few minutes, then headed for Kuwait City. But that is not what seems to have happened, either. Recalling the event, Rich Krell told CNN's Jake Tapper, "Well, no, we were all scared. That's the truth." Somewhere, there are flight logs and mission debriefing notes of all of this. At least in that respect the truth is ambiguously provable, if it is not classified, which it probably is. In the original story from 2003, there is comms audio at the beginning of the story: "We took fire on the way in, we currently are not under fire." Who took fire? We do not know. How relevant is it, though? If we took statements from all the people on that mission, we would never hear exactly the same story twice. This is the Fog of War, "The uncertainty in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations." 

In his various re-tellings of the story, Williams often employs the pronoun, "We." But it is not at all always clear whether the "we" is himself and his crew, all the people on his helicopter, or the whole convoy. Indeed, the meaning of "we" shifts sometimes from one sentence to the next. It adds to the confusion, but it does not seem to underlie some attempt by Williams to hijack the glory, or to place himself where he wasn't. Really, it seems more like Williams is trying to tell a story, oft re-told, efficiently within the constraints of live television.

This leads us to the second problem, which is perhaps the actual problem.

In 1998, in the immediate and fierce blowback from CNN's disastrous program, "The Valley of Death," about Operation Tailwind, and before the network retracted the story and fired everyone involved, correspondent Peter Arnett announced that he had contributed "not one comma" to the script, implicating everyone else involved in a desperate attempt to save himself. That did not go over so well, even inspiring a Christiane Amanpour authored Op-Ed, "The Myth of the Cavalier Correspondent," in The New York Times defending the honor of network news correspondents everywhere, all of who, herself included, write every word they say. That is not true, either, not even close, not even in Amanpour's case, but no matter. Effectively the affair ended Arnett's career.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Williams cannot say he did not write it, because that calls into question the credibility of the whole operation that is the NBC Nightly News. That would be pulling an Arnett. The only thing worse for NBC's public relations than the head honcho's failure is the admission of an institutional failure. Williams has no choice. He is the face of the franchise. He has to take the bullet. Let's not get so crazy as to call it a heroic act, but there is a poetry to it consistent with his reputation (until last week).

Memory is unreliable in the most ideal circumstances. And trauma induces various forms of shock, never remembering, and misremembering. Memory contains our ever-shifting story. The best accounts, experts say, are contemporaneous accounts, in this case Williams' baseline account fresh from the experience back in 2003. Even then, ask three witnesses to tell you the story when it is still fresh. You will hear three different stories. 

Coming under live fire is surreal, and as Krell reminded us, scary. The adrenaline courses, there is a sense of hyper-awareness, a sense that you are outside of yourself seeing yourself, the God view. The time is out of joint, to crib from Shakespeare. What can seem like hours is minutes, what seems like minutes is hours. Later, you put together a story that makes sense of it, but I would say the chances are pretty good that your global sense of what happened is not global at all, that it is very specific to you and how you experience what later becomes your narrative.

It is tough to feel bad for Williams. He knows the game is rigged. NBC has never been shy about promoting the Brian Williams brand until it all turned into a hot mess. It is not about remembering or forgetting or misremembering or exaggerating or lying. It is about the $200 million in ad revenues it has been reported that NBC makes from the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams. What remains fascinating, however, is how the media's narrative continues to attach more weight to the statements of the pilot who contradicts Williams than the statements of the pilot who supports Williams. The tsunami of confirmation bias is a thing to behold. Of greater fascination is how the media echo complex is taking Williams' words, particularly the 2013 interviews on Letterman and Alec Baldwin's show – absent actual knowledge – labeling them as lies, and repeating them labeled as lies, when it seems the statements are in the first instance not untrue, and in the second instance completely true. The oddest twist of all is that until the fateful newscast two Fridays ago, Williams' version of events has remained remarkably consistent through the years. One might expect that from an individual who is trained and experienced in the art of accurate recall, whose career depends on it.

Following the announcement from NBC that Williams would be suspended without pay for six months, and prior to any results of its own internal investigation, former ABC News president David Westin said on PBS NewsHour, "I would hope that all the newsrooms, instead of gloating about what's happened over at NBC News take a hard look at themselves, and ask themselves, 'Are their anchors and their correspondents covering the story or are they trying to be part of the story?' Because I think that's the fundamental weakness, even evil, that underlies this, and everyone can take a hard look at themselves and learn from that."

Steve Daly is a three-time nominated, two-time Emmy award-winning journalist and television producer, and an Annenberg award-winning visual artist based in Los Angeles. He has covered multiple conflicts, including being embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 2002. He holds a degree in journalism and political science from Syracuse University and a Masters of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.