The following is an excerpt from OpinionJournal’s “Best of the Web” at WSJ written by the editor, James Taranto.
Out on a Limb
“Most New Jersey Residents Think Gov. Christie Focused on Own Ambitions: Poll”—headline, Reuters, Feb. 5
Other Than That, the Story Was Accurate
“Because of an editing error, an article on Tuesday about the resignation of the chairman of a United Nations panel investigating possible war crimes in the 50-day Gaza Strip conflict last summer misstated the volume of rockets fired by Palestinian militants into Israel during the conflict. It was in the thousands, not the hundreds.”—New York Times, Feb. 5
If Memory Serves
Brian Williams of the “NBC Nightly News” is having a rough day, though not as rough as a day he claimed to have had a dozen years ago.
“Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years,” reports Stars and Stripes.
The deception came to light after “Williams repeated the claim Friday during NBC’s coverage of a public tribute at a New York Rangers hockey game for a retired soldier [who] had provided ground security for the grounded helicopters, a game to which Williams accompanied him.” The Friday “Nightly News” segment was posted on Facebook, where Lance Reynolds, flight engineer for the chopper that was hit, disputed Williams’s account:
Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened. Then I remember you guys taking back off in a different flight of Chinooks from another unit and heading to Kuwait to report your “war story” to the Nightly News. The whole time we were still stuck in Iraq trying to repair the aircraft and pulling our own Security.
Williams responded yesterday on Facebook: “You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy.” He insisted “I have no desire to fictionalize my experience.” In his TV retraction, he used notably passive language: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” And he assured his audience: “I would not have chosen to make this mistake.”
Mistake or not, he chose to tell the embellished story multiple times over the years (although in the original “Nightly News” report from 2003, he was not on the chopper that took fire). One of the most notable was on a 2013 “Late Show With David Letterman” appearance, of which Stars and Stripes has a partial transcript:
Williams: “Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in—“
Letterman: “No kidding!”
Williams: “. . . uh, RPG and AK-47.”
Letterman: “What altitude were you hit at?”
Williams: “We were only at a hundred feet, doing a hundred forward knots, because we had these massive pieces of bridge [part of a construction project] beneath us on slings—”
Letterman: “What happens the minute everybody realized you’ve been hit?”
Williams: “We figure out how to land—”
The story has raised a lot of questions. The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza—who was hard on Republican Reps. Paul Ryan and Steve Scalise for false or inconsistent statements about past events—tweeted last night: “memory is complicated. He’s built a reputation as one of the most trustworthy journalists in America. Why would he make this up?”
Allow us to suggest an obvious partial answer: because he thought he could get away with it, as in fact he did for quite a few years. We doubt the deception would have come to light, say, 20 years ago. Or even 10 years ago, for the democratization of media has continued apace since the last time a major-network news anchorman was caught peddling falsehoods.
The idea that Williams, who was there, could have “conflated” the helicopter that was hit with one that wasn’t, and misremembered himself as having been on the former, seems highly implausible. On the other hand, a viewer could easily make that mistake, which may help explain why Williams would not expect to get caught.
The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple asks: “Do these folks”—meaning soldiers—“have to fight our wars and fact-check NBC News?” That rhetorical question is a setup for these real ones, about other NBC personnel who were there:
Where were Williams’s [production] crew members, who surely knew that Williams had either “conflated” his Chinook with another Chinook—his explanation—or was using the passage of time to embellish his own exploits—another explanation. And what of other NBC News employees who worked on the story? Why did they remain silent on these matters? Are they still with NBC News?
Wemple asked; NBC didn’t answer. But the likeliest explanation is that to the extent people at NBC were paying attention and were troubled by Williams’s false statements, they remained quiet because they didn’t want to challenge the boss (Williams is also managing editor of the “Nightly News”).
John Hinderaker, Johnson’s co-blogger at PowerLineBlog.com, has interesting thoughts on the question of Williams’s motive:
Often when he told the story, the context was Williams’s expression of admiration for the fighting men and women whom he got to know in Iraq. I don’t doubt that those expressions were genuine. . . .
While the soldiers whom Williams got to know in Iraq work for peanuts, relatively speaking, Williams makes enormous amounts of money. . . . In some sense, Williams is paid far more than he deserves. His modest skills as a glib speaker with a patrician mien and a midwestern accent have been, by any normal standard, massively over-rewarded. . . .
The kind of wealth that has been heaped upon Brian Williams gives rise to a phenomenon that has played much too large a part in our national life: liberal guilt. Again, this is pure speculation, but I suspect that Williams’s emotional need to portray himself (in his own mind, not just to outsiders) as someone who braved dangers, was shot at and nearly killed, was part of how he assuaged the guilt that came packaged with the hundreds of millions of dollars he has earned for doing, really, not much.
Hinderaker goes on to compare Williams’s tale with this story, reported by Reuters in 2008:
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said on Tuesday she made a mistake when she claimed she had come under sniper fire during a trip to Bosnia in 1996 while she was first lady. . . .
“I did make a mistake in talking about it, you know, the last time and recently,” Clinton told reporters in Pennsylvania where she was campaigning before the state’s April 22 primary. She said she had a “different memory” about the landing.
“So I made a mistake. That happens. It proves I’m human, which, you know, for some people, is a revelation.”
One might also cite the example of Sgt. Richard Blumenthal, who repeatedly boasted of his service in Vietnam—a claim that would have been true only if “Vietnam” were a time rather than a place. Or even of John Kerry, who claimed Richard Nixon sent him on a secret mission to Cambodia in 1968, when Nixon wasn’t even president yet.
The Kerry comparison is not entirely fair to Williams, who, as Scott Johnson points out, does seem to have a genuine admiration for American servicemen. But Mrs. Clinton, Blumenthal and Kerry all have in common that their lies—or “mistakes”—were not career-ending. Blumenthal won his Senate bid; Kerry and Mrs. Clinton both became secretary of state, and she is now once again the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Then again, people expect politicians to lie in the service of objectives noble or ignoble. For a journalist, truth is supposed to be the objective.
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