The key question in any ethics problem is usually “What’s going on here?” With Brian Williams’ bizarre admission that he had been telling a false story involving his experience covering the Iraq War for over a decade, it’s impossible to say with confidence what is going on.
We know this: Williams told viewers on his evening news broadcast last week about an incident when he was covering the Iraq war, saying that a helicopter he was flying in was hit and forced down by an RPG. After the broadcast, soldiers began complaining on Facebook:
“Stars and Stripes” noticed, investigated Williams’ account and found it to be false. Williams quickly apologized, both on Facebook and in his Wednesday broadcast. Here is his Facebook recant:
“To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize. I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don’t remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds. Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim’s Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him. The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.”
Research has revealed that Williams has been telling various versions of the story for over a decade, sometimes saying he was in a helicopter behind the one hit by fire, sometimes saying, as he did on the David Letterman show last year, that he was actually a passenger on the helicopter forced down. Thus his Facebook apology is misleading, and the one he gave last night even moreso. At Powerline, John Hinderaker explains:
This is the statement that Williams read on-air tonight:
“After a groundfire incident in the desert during the Iraq war invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago….”
No: Williams has been telling the false story since shortly after the incident occurred. He told it for the last time, not the first, last week.
“It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert….”
Not since last Friday, but it took a decade or more since Williams first told the false story.
“I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. . . .”
Again, Williams tries to mislead: his “following aircraft” landed an hour after the one that took the hit from the RPG.
“This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and, by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not…”
A bungled attempt last Friday evening at the Rangers game. Williams implies, once again, that this was the first time he has told the false story. But he is on video telling the same story at least 13 times since 2003.
Williams’s on-air apology, like the Facebook version, was disingenuous. I doubt that it will help him in the long term.
Hinderaker, a prominent conservative political blogger, believes that Williams is certain to be fired as a result of the controversy, the convoluted details of which you can read about here, here, and here in addition to the Washington Post story linked above.
I’m not so sure that he will. Should he?
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is…
“Can Brian Williams be trusted after this?”
Many of the news reports and blogs assume that Williams was lying; others take his word that he was mistaken, still other misuse the term lying, appearing to accept Williams’ explanation that he “misremembered,” and calling it lying anyway, a common fallacy that drives me crazy. If he knowingly lied about the incident, it seem unavoidable to conclude that Williams is untrustworthy and must be fired. Why would he do that, though, since the story could be invalidated by the soldiers on two helicopters, placing his reputation and career at risk? Hinderaker’s theory involves liberal guilt:
“…if my speculation is right, and liberal guilt caused Williams to make up a story about his own experience that he told, over and over for twelve years, until it finally brought him down, how else has it influenced him? How has liberal guilt shaped stories that he has written and delivered on the economy; on taxes; on wages; on corporate profits; on fiscal policy; on race relations; on affirmative action; and on many other subjects NBC News has addressed over the years? If Williams would make up bald-faced lies in one context to assuage his own liberal guilt, is it unreasonable to think that he and his NBC colleagues have passed off misrepresentations, misleading data, errors of omission and, yes, outright falsehoods in service of the liberal cause on other topics, for the same reason.”
Well, maybe. Isn’t it possible that Williams inadvertently messed up his facts? Even the liberals are dubious: The Post’s Eric Wemple seems to but Willliams’ explanation that his memory was “muddled,” then says elsewhere that “conflating the experience of taking incoming fire with the experience of not taking incoming fire seems verily impossible.” The conservatives have been less charitable, with many writing versions of “Sure, who doesn’t get confused over whether they were in a helicopter being hit by ground fire or just watching one?” Confirmation bias rules supreme in situations like this: many regard Williams at the forefront of liberal media bias, and didn’t trust him before this embarrassment.
I’m willing to give Williams the benefit of the doubt and assume that he made a mistake. Nevertheless, the length and seriousness of the mistake, even if one accepts that his honesty isn’t implicated, certainly casts doubt on his judgment and reliability. You can’t have a network anchorman who makes up stuff, and you also can’t keep one who can’t distinguish fantasy from reality. I don’t see how Brian Williams can be trusted after such a fiasco. A responsible news organization has to fire him.
I have doubts about whether NBC is a responsible news organization, however. We shall see.