Nobody can accuse Brian Williams of not knowing what it feels like to take incoming fire.
On Day 2 of the feeding frenzy over his tall tale about a helicopter ride, rival media outlets and bloggers subjected the embattled NBC Nightly News anchor to withering scrutiny, and veterans’ groups offered both support and condemnation after Williams apologized for “conflating” and “misrember[ing]” a March 2003 incident during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Even more troubling, the New York Post reported that Williams's immediate predecessor as anchor, Tom Brokaw, is among those calling for his dismissal. "Brokaw wants Williams's head on a platter," the paper quoted an unidentified NBC source. "He is making a lot of noise that a lesser journalist or producer would have been immediately fired or suspended for a false report."
Meanwhile, in a rare bit of good news for NBC, Rich Krell, an Army helicopter pilot who said on CNN that Williams had been his passenger in Iraq, partially backed up the beleaguered anchorman’s story. Krell said that the Chinook had been fired upon from the ground. (However, on Friday, after reports that Williams had not been in Krell's helicopter, Krell told CNN's Brian Stelter he was "questioning my memories that I may have forgotten or left something out.")
At the time of writing, NBC News is officially in bunker mode, with news division president Deborah Turness and other key executives zipping their lips amid the mushrooming uproar.
“People are baffled that they are hanging him out to dry,” a network insider told The Daily Beast. This person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, expressed surprise that NBC News, which is clearly hoping the issue will go away, had not publicly and robustly backed Williams. After all, his top-rated program, of which he is managing editor, is a rare bright spot in a network news division that has suffered rocky personnel changes and sagging viewership in recent years.
The network insider elaborated: “They could have said, ‘We’re going to conduct an internal investigation to find out how this happened’”—that is, Williams’s erroneous claim on last Friday’s newscast that he was aboard a Chinook helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. “And they could have added: ‘But Brian has done fantastic reporting over many years—and he’s our guy.’”
But a former NBC News employee, who likewise didn’t want to be identified, said such an approach could simply inflame an already difficult situation, especially when nobody knows what other shoes might drop.
For instance, a conservative blog, SooperMexican, posted video clips on Thursday that apparently showed Williams telling two completely different stories about a New Orleans man who committed suicide during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina catastrophe. In one clip, a discussion with his predecessor, former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw, Williams said he personally witnessed the death. In a second clip, Williams said he “heard the story of a man killing himself falling from the upper deck” of the New Orleans Superdome. NBC News didn’t respond to an email seeking an explanation of the discrepancy.
NBC News also didn’t respond to a damaging story in the New Orleans Advocate that called into question Williams’s claims that while covering Katrina, he saw floating dead bodies from his hotel room window in the French Quarter—which was largely dry during the ordeal—and contracted dystentery from drinking floodwaters. “I saw fear, I saw death, I saw depravity, I saw firearms being brandished, I saw looting,” he claimed in an interview to the LA Times, elaborating in a 2007 interview with C-SPAN “We had to have men with guns behind me one night because I was the only source of light downtown, was the lights that were illuminating the broadcast… We were told not to drink our bottled water in front of people because we could get killed for it.”
Referring to NBC News execs, the former employee told The Daily Beast, “I’m sure they’re paralyzed."
The Los Angeles Times, quoting anonymous NBC News execs, reported that Williams’s on-air apology has been accepted internally and that he’s expected to face no disciplinary action for his serious journalistic lapse, which included showing video of a combat-damaged helicopter and representing it wrongly as the Chinook on which Williams had been a passenger.
The paper added, however, that the execs are likely to curtail Williams’s less-than-anchor-worthy outside appearances, such as guest spots on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, where he frequently displays his self-deprecating, funny side by “slow-jamming the news.” The Los Angeles Times reports it’s unclear whether Williams will be permitted to go ahead with a scheduled appearance next week on CBS’s Late Show with David Letterman—where Williams told his bogus helicopter story in March 2013. Around the same time, he related a similar version on actor Alec Baldwin’s WNYC radio program, Here’s the Thing—suggesting that it was a near-death experience. Variety, meanwhile, reported that Williams had disregarded the advice of several worried executives to stop telling the helicopter story .
The criticism of Williams by rival outlets has been unsparing. On Thursday’s installment of Erin Burnett OutFront, the CNN anchor referred to his lapse as “a lie.” A USA Today column called the situation “an unmitigated disaster for Brian Williams and NBC News…It’s hard to see how Williams gets past this, and how he survives as the face of NBC News. An anchor’s No. 1 requirement is that he or she has credibility. If we don’t believe what an anchor tells us, what’s the point?”
One of Williams’s rare defenders in the journalism business has been a former network anchorman whose own career cratered in 2004 when it turned out that his blockbuster report on President George W. Bush’s checkered military history was based on apparently forged documents.
“I don’t know the particulars about that day in Iraq,” Dan Rather said in a statement Thursday. “I do know Brian. He’s a longtime friend and we have been in a number of war zones and on the same battlefields, competing but together. Brian is an honest, decent man, an excellent reporter and anchor—and a brave one. I can attest that—like his predecessor Tom Brokaw—he is a superb pro, and a gutsy one.”
UPDATE: In a company-wide memo NBC News President Deborah Turness has told staff the network is "gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired."
The memo in full:
All, This has been a difficult few days for all of us at NBC News. Yesterday, Brian and I spoke to the Nightly News team. And this morning at the Editorial Exchange, we both addressed the wider group. Brian apologized once again, and specifically expressed how sorry he is for the impact this has had on all of you and on this proud organization.As you would expect, we have a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired. We’re working on what the best next steps are – and when we have something to communicate we will of course share it with you.Since joining NBC News, I’ve seen great strength and resilience. We are a close-knit family, and your response this week has made that even clearer.As a relentless news agenda marches on, thank you again for continuing to do what we do best – bring the most important stories of the day to our audience.Deborah