Deep Trouble: NBC’s Brian Williams Is In A Free Fall

Matt Vespa
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Posted: Feb 06, 2015 4:45 PM
Deep Trouble: NBC’s Brian Williams Is In A Free Fall

Editor's note: Photo credit goes to the folks at the Media Research Center.

NBC News’ Brian Williams is in a free fall. This is surely becoming an unmitigated disaster for Williams and the network, which broadcast the most watched evening news program in the country. The pilot on Williams’ helicopter, Rich Krell, said that the chopper took small arms fire, despite the NBC anchor saying they were under RPG and AK-47 fire. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple said this development limited, but didn’t eliminate the issues surrounding Williams’ credibility.

Now, Mr. Krell doubts his own account of events. Brian Stelter wrote about the account, but has since changed his story to reflect the changes in Krell’s recollection of events. He insists that Krell isn’t a plant. He’s maintained a Twitter account since 2012 and cross-referenced that with his LinkedIn page. Stelter also found a photo of Krell and Williams in a book about the Iraq War published by NBC News [emphasis mine]:

Perhaps most importantly, I contacted the NBC News public relations department. When I asked about Krell's name, the P.R. person replied with a message labeled "off the record," so I can't quote it here. Suffice to say, the reply gave me more confidence in Krell's account.

(To be clear, however, the NBC P.R. person now says the network cannot confirm which person piloted Williams' helicopter.)

Then I wrote a CNNMoney story, quoting Krell at length. "He messed up some things and said some things he shouldn't have," Krell said -- while backing up Williams' accounts of "small arms fire." I also helped set up Krell's Thursday afternoon interview on CNN TV.

The newspaper Stars and Stripes published a story on Thursday afternoon contradicting Krell's account. I called Krell and he told me, "No, that's not what happened."

Krell now works for a military contractor. He served in the Army from 1983 until 2007.

At this point, I still hadn't heard back from any of the other soldiers I had contacted for interviews. (I'd started to contact some soldiers on Wednesday, when the story broke, and I redoubled my efforts on Thursday.)

On Thursday night, two others, Christopher Simeone and Allan Kelly, told The New York Times that they -- not Krell -- had piloted Williams' helicopter, and that "they did not recall their convoy of helicopters coming under fire."

Simeone, Kelly and a third soldier, Joseph Miller, also spoke with The Omaha World-Herald. The newspaper wrote this:

"Simeone and Kelly said only two helicopters were in their group, from Company B of the 159th Aviation. They said Krell was piloting the first helicopter. Simeone and Kelly were pilots on the second Chinook, and Miller was in their crew."

The paper continued: "All three said Williams was riding with them, not with Krell. They all said neither bird took fire at any time that day."

I text-messaged Krell before dawn, and asked him to call me as soon as he woke up. He replied with this text:

"Good morning. The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories that I may have forgotten or left something out."

Dear Lord; this is a mess. Since the admission, NBC News has reportedly sprinted to the bunker, leaving Williams “out to dry,” according to Lloyd Grove at Daily Beast:

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.

Well, that’s happened as well. NBC is officially launching an investigation into Williams’ Iraq War account and his Hurricane Katrina coverage, where he alleges he saw a man commit suicide, caught dysentery by ingesting floodwater, and saw a dead body float by his hotel room.

The internal probe is being led by Richard Esposito, who heads the network's investigative unit and was formerly an editor at The Daily News of New York, according to a report by The Daily News. The Daily News was the first news outlet to disclose the investigation.

In a 2006 interview with former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Williams said he witnessed a body floating in the French Quarter area of the city.

"When you look out of your hotel window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country," Williams told Eisner, who suggested in the interview that Williams emerged from former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw's shadow with his Katrina coverage.

"There were bodies in other parts (of the city), but there were no bodies in the Quarter," Brobson Lutz, a former city health director for New Orleans, told USA TODAY, adding that the only body he retrieved from the neighborhood at the time was a restaurateur who died of a heart attack.

Lutz also mentioned that he doesn’t remember a single case of dysentery post-Katrina.

Now, pictures have surfaced showing that there was flooding near the Ritz Carlton hotel­–located in the French Quarter–where Williams was staying at the time. Yet, we don’t know the depth of the flooding. In one picture, you can see that it’s shallow enough to see the sidewalk below the water, but deep enough to float a boat, according to The New Orleans Advocate, who also published an unflattering account of Williams’ possible Katrina discrepancies. The piece also claimed that there were people stricken with dysentery, but the quest cited wasn’t a doctor:

Williams also said he suffered from a case of dysentery from ingesting floodwater during his reporting. While that is also likely unverifiable, at least one hotel guest who was interviewed by CNN on Sept. 1 said there were cases of dysentery being treated at the hotel by a group of infectious disease doctors who set up a makeshift clinic there after being stranded. The guest quoted was not a doctor. The doctors at the hotel were in town for a conference, the guest said.

As for the “man committing suicide” claim, well, that looks fishy as well (via WaPo):

In a documentary aired in October 2005 on the Sundance Channel, “In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina,” Williams said, “We’d heard the story of a man killing himself, falling from the upper deck” of the SuperDome, which sheltered thousands of people in chaotic circumstances.

But in a subsequent video chat with former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw made after he accepted the Peabody Award, Williams’s story changed from hearing about the suicide to actually witnessing it. “We watched . . . all of us watched as one man committed suicide” inside the SuperDome, he said.

A suicide did occur inside the SuperDome, The Washington Post reported at the time, although the National Guard official who confirmed the death said the man had not jumped from the fourth level.

If Williams witnessed the episode, he did not report it before then. On Sept. 1, he left New Orleans and began reporting from nearby Metairie, La.

In all, the Advocate states that the body and dysentery claims are unverifiable. Still, in the words of SooperMexican, “Given that he [Williams] obviously exaggerated the suicide story to Tom Brokaw, it’s not beyond imagining that he would have done the same about seeing a floating corpse.”

Hence, why there’s an investigation. Looping back to Guy’s question about Williams being fired, incredulously Grove wrote that his on-air apology had been accepted internally. And that the most that will come of this will probably be limiting Mr. Williams’ guest appearances on other shows:

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 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.

Mr. Williams is said to be "mortified" over this fiasco.

Tim Graham of the Media Research Center, the point of the lance in exposing liberal media bias, isn't so sure.

Yeah, these guys are having a field day over this–and it's pretty funny.

UPDATE: WaPo's Erik Wemple has the memo by Deborah Turness, NBC News President,sent to staffers highlighting Williams' remorse and pending the investigation. There's no endorsement of Williams in the memo:

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