Reality Check

Inside Richard Engel’s Abrupt Change of Mind

Finally, a PR win for NBC: the network scooped the ‘New York Times’ with the revelation of the true identity of its chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel’s kidnappers.

Score one for image-battered NBC News, which has finally gotten the better of a rival news outlet intent on exposing its shortcomings.

The Peacock Network’s chief foreign correspondent, Richard Engel, on Wednesday night preempted a two-month-long New York Times investigation, bylined by three Times journalists and prepared with the help of six others—the sort of ambitious team effort that ordinarily would have landed on the front page but in this case was relegated to B1.

With the active involvement of NBC News President Deborah Turness and brand-new NBC News Chairman Andy Lack, who assumed formal control of the broadcast and cable news operations in a corporate shakeup earlier this month, Engel scooped the Times on its own scoop, correcting NBC’s long-held version of a harrowing December 2012 incident in which Engel and five other employees were kidnapped, blindfolded, and subjected to physical and psychological abuse for five days in civil war-torn Syria.

In his detailed, 1,700-word account600 words longer than the Times’s story —Engel reported that contrary to his original belief, which he affirmed in television appearances and a riveting article in the April 2013 edition of Vanity Fair, he and his colleagues were not taken by Shiite Shabiha militiamen who backed Syrian President Bashar al Assad, but instead by Sunni thugs with ties to the rebel Free Syrian Army.

“The group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen,” Engel wrote, describing his tormentors as “a criminal gang with shifting allegiances.”

Writing that his own investigation began a month ago, and was prompted by questions from the Times, Engel added: “The group that freed us also had ties to the kidnappers.”

One can only imagine the shrieks of agony and anger that emanated from the Times’s Renzo Piano-designed headquarters on Manhattan’s West Side as reporters and editors scrambled to rush their long-planned scoop into publishable shape, hours behind NBC and even further behind the Huffington Post’s media columnist Michael Calderone, who broke the news of Engel’s revision.

The Times essentially seconded Engel’s re-reported version but added piquant details, notably that NBC News stuck by the Shiite militia version in the weeks after the kidnapping, even as contrary evidence mounted from U.S. government and other sources.

Indeed, in a groundbreaking Dec. 22, 2012 report in the Daily Beast, my colleague Jamie Dettmer was the first journalist to raise doubts about NBC’s version, five days after Engel & Co. gained their freedom.

“First, the sources say the gunmen who seized the crew may also have included rogue members of the rebel FSA—something top FSA commanders are keen to obscure,” Dettmer wrote then, referring to the Free Syrian Army.

“According to one source, ‘NBC’s security advisers were convinced that there was some FSA involvement in this and contacted wealthy Syrian-American donors of the rebel group, pointing out that Richard had been supportive of the uprising against Assad. They urged them to put pressure on the FSA. They really screwed down on them.’ Top FSA commanders were alarmed and promised to help.”

Dettmer added: “The disclosure that rogue FSA fighters may have been involved in the abduction of the NBC crew will alarm Western correspondents working in Syria, who have to rely on FSA rebels for their safety in a particularly testing war zone of constantly shifting frontlines.”

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On Thursday, Dettmer elaborated, telling me that NBC News was remiss if it withheld information about the Engel team’s kidnappers for whatever reason, whether to avoid embarrassing the Syrian rebels on which it relied for sources and safety, or causing complications with their security contractors and insurers.

“There was a lot of irritation among some of the journalists covering the war, when there are a lot of security concerns,” Dettmer said. “I was damned irritated. Other journalists’ lives are at risk, and we need as much real-time information as possible when we’re traveling in Syria, and we find out that the FSA is handing people over to jihadist groups.”

CBS Evening News executive producer Steve Capus, who was president of NBC News at the time of the incident, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Another critic, First Look Media’s Glenn Greenwald, accused NBC executives, but not Engel, of sticking with the Shiite militia version in order to offer subliminal support for U.S. Military action against Assad in the Syrian civil war.

“[T]he NBC story was quite likely to fuel the simmering war cries in the west to attack (or at least aggressively intervene against) Assad,” Greenwald wrote. “That’s a far more serious and far more consequential journalistic sin than a news reader puffing out his chest and pretending he’s Rambo”—a reference to suspended anchor Brian Williams.

People at NBC News—which declined to comment—would doubtless point out that Syria is a hall of mirrors, a confusion of rumor and conflicting intelligence, so it seemed only prudent to defer to Engel & Co., who had face-to-facemask experience with their kidnappers.

The Times also declined to comment on Thursday. I’m told the paper plans at least one follow-up story in what its team considers an ongoing investigation of the kidnapping and its aftermath.

Still, while nobody at NBC News is doing an end-zone victory dance, Engel’s coup was a rare, if temporary, bit of good news for a morale-challenged organization that, until now, has experienced nearly uninterrupted pain and suffering over the past three years—from the messy departures of Ann Curry and David Gregory, to the ratings slide of the Today show, to the PR debacle surrounding Williams’s tall tales, to the more recent unwelcome development that its flagship broadcast, NBC Nightly News, has lost its edge in the Nielsens to ABC’s World News Tonight.

Unlike the network’s laggard responses to many of those issues, in which NBC News consistently found itself cleaning up after the elephants, this is a case where it aggressively got ahead of a potentially negative story and minimized the immediate damage with an impressive display of disclosure.