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Oh Brian, Brian, Brian

Brian Williams

Brian Williams really is one of the good guys in the journalism business.  Smart, funny, unassuming, a regular guy’s regular guy…especially for a network television anchorman, a category not generally known for humility.

And now his career seems to be threatened not just because of what turned out to be the tall tales he repeatedly told about a chopper ride in Iraq 12 years ago, but by an apology many saw as disingenuous and complete with weasel words like “misremembered.”

Let’s see if we can make some sense out of this because “liar” is just not one of the words generally used to describe Brian Williams.

Rich Krell was the pilot of the Chinook helicopter that carried Williams and three other NBC staffers ahead of the advancing American military forces during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.  Krell talked to CNN this morning and has a different take on the whole thing than the crew members of the other choppers interviewed by Stars and Stripes.

Krell notes that the chopper Williams was riding in did take small arms fire.  The choppers were carrying bridge parts and extensions that took the brunt of most of those bullets.  And the helicopter was part of a 3-chopper formation that flew together and ended up taking evasive maneuvers after coming under fire.   Krell says the Williams chopper separated from the others as it went off to drop off the bridge extensions.  They returned and the brief trip to deliver the bridge parts would explain why the crew members of the other helicopters said Williams showed up later.

Williams embellished the story through the years.  Small arms fire became rocket propelled grenades.   The three-chopper formation, he said, was a four-chopper formation (Krell says the 4th one developed mechanical issues so only three flew in formation that day).   In various interviews through the years, he has mentioned fearing for his life, which might or might not have been the case with small-arms fire, but certainly makes for a good yarn.   And here’s where we start getting, I think, to the truth of the story.

Williams, like many journalists, is a story teller.  And he’s good at it.  And he tells stories like good story-tellers do; with passion, conviction, detail and 100% sincerity.  Even, in this case, while taking license with the facts.  I imagine Williams is not the first person to ever tell “war stories” that are full of bluster and exaggerated breathlessness, but unfortunately for him- he is a famous television anchorman who happens to be the face of NBC News.

If I was Brian Williams, here’s how I would do a second take on the apology.   What did seem disingenuous about the mea culpa, was a seeming implication that he had told this story just once, the other night as he tried to recognize the heroism of a military man at a sports event.  Not true.  He has told the tall tale many, many times before and there are plenty of video/audio clips of such.   Here’s what I’d say if I were Brian next time there’s an opportunity for a chat with Jimmy Fallon or David Letterman:

“The chopper I was in did take small arms fire. It was not hit by an RPG. I have told this story often through the years and each telling has gotten more and more dramatic…like something you might do at a bar with friends. But I am a newsman with a daily broadcast seen by millions. It was irresponsible of me to embellish like that and I have learned my lesson. Credibility is really the only asset I have as a newsman. And now I have to work very hard to regain your trust. I ask everybody for another chance.”

I’d be quite inclined to give him that chance if he leveled with us like that.

In the future, I would also advise anyone facing similar circumstances to use a thesaurus to find a synonym for “misremembered.”  I don’t think this reaches the level of “I lied.”   But maybe something like “wild-ass exaggerating” or “intense embellishment,” might go down better than the weasel-like “misremembered.”   Nobody wants a word like that to end up being their contribution to the English lexicon.

  1. Paul Davis
    February 6, 2015 at 1:47 am

    Well thought and well written, Robert. Sad his retraction has to be dismembered.

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