Variety’s buried lede: “Senior” NBC News execs “counseled” Williams to stop telling helicopter story

posted at 10:01 pm on February 5, 2015 by Ed Morrissey

The trade magazine Variety provided an interesting twist to the Brian Williams debacle earlier today, although one had to practically use a backhoe to find the buried lede. Brian Steinberg starts off noting the many challenges NBC News already faces, especially in regard to its troubled MSNBC cable channel, and how the exposure of Williams’ fabulism hardly helps NBC News president Deborah Turness in dealing with the avalanche of problems on her plate. It takes Steinberg ten paragraphs to reveal why the Williams story is actually a bigger crisis for the news division’s credibility than first thought:

What makes Williams’ admission worse, according to one person familiar with the situation, is that he had been counseled in the past by senior NBC News executives to stop telling the story in public. The advice, this person said, was not heeded.  One person familiar with current NBC News operations disputed that information.

Williams’ version of the story has never been allowed in NBC News programs, according to three people familiar with the unit. Indeed, in a March 2003 episode of “Dateline,” Williams described the helicopter trip accurately. “On the ground, we learned the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky,” he said while narrating a report.

That puts a whole new spin on the story, and NBC News’ part in it. Steinberg has three sources that state that news execs barred Williams from telling his story on air, at least during their broadcasts. If true, then that means that NBC News brass must have known something was suspect about Williams’ tale of courage under fire — otherwise, why not tell the story that would reflect so well on their anchor? After all, they ran that ad last year celebrating Williams’ ten-year anniversary with the unfortunate title “Battle Scars,” but which pointedly did not include any scenes from that particular excursion. (It also makes Williams’ decision to tell the story on CBS’ Late Night with David Letterman look rather odd.)

Some have wondered whether the NBC crew that traveled with Williams on that embed have ever confirmed or denied Williams’ tale. Perhaps they shared it internally, either directly to the execs or around the offices, eventually reaching their ears. The execs may have heard from others who were there, too, such as the veterans who went public after hearing the same false story spun last week. Or maybe they just began to question the story as it became more embellished and, in Williams’ word, “conflated” from his original claims.

Steinberg has two sources for the “counseling” claims that contradict each other, which might be a wash, except for the three sources who tell him that the execs were wary enough to ban mention of the story on the air on any of their news programs. If that’s the case, it’s pretty easy to imagine that one or more of them may have asked Williams to put a sock in it, but without much power to enforce it. As events have proved, if Williams did get this “counseling,” he should have heeded it.

Assuming that Steinberg’s sources are solid, then it makes NBC News executives a party to Williams’ deceit. They wouldn’t have been able to blow the whistle on him without doing damage to the brand, but if they suspected Williams wasn’t telling the truth, they could have moved him out of the anchor seat a long time ago, or at the very least to hire a managing editor to ride herd on Williams. That might have been a big problem too, but at least it wouldn’t leave them with the credibility meltdown they now have — especially since they had an opening for the change, and instead signed Williams to a fat new contract:

Williams is more or less the face of NBC’s signature news division. To reprimand him is to cast aspersion on the entire operation. In December, NBC News took time out to celebrate Williams’ ten years as anchor of “Nightly,” releasing a series of archive clips highlighting major moments from his decade behind the desk. A promo narrated by actor Michael Douglas touting Williams has made the rounds of NBC’s air and its various digital properties And NBC News recently signed the anchor to a new contract, reported by the Los Angeles Times to be valued at $10 million a year over five years.

Again, if Variety has this right, then the problem for NBC News is even bigger than Erik Wemple argued earlier. He’s also not sold on the idea that the testimony of the pilot solves the problem:

These revelations limit but by no means eliminate the credibility problems faced by Williams stemming from his mis-telling of the episode in recent years. Just last week, Williams reported on air that the helicopter carrying him “was forced down after being hit by an RPG.” He also told David Letterman in March 2013, upon the 10-year anniversary of the event, that “two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47.”

Those are the most embellished versions of Williams’s story. In the immediate aftermath of the coordinated helicopter movement in the Iraqi desert, Williams, on March 26, 2003, filed two reports to NBC News: One to the NBC Nightly News, which left a murky picture of just how much enemy fire Williams’s crew sustained, and a longer, more specific piece on “Dateline” that clarified the RPG’s target: “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky. That hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade, or RPG, fired from the ground.”

According to Variety, anyway, that’s the only version NBC News would allow on the air. Maybe Wemple should ask them why — and why they didn’t force Williams to correct the record long before the veterans had to demand it.

Update: An industry insider (not affiliated with NBC) whose opinions I trust raises the possibility that NBC News might have told him to stop telling the story because it was obnoxiously self-promoting, not because they thought it was false. The context of Steinberg’s report seems to favor the latter, but the former is certainly possible.


Related Posts:

Breaking on Hot Air

Blowback

Trackbacks/Pings

Trackback URL

Comments

Incoming!

Scotty J on February 5, 2015 at 10:06 PM

Comcast board of directors will be the ones who pull the plug.

The Roberts guy who is the son of the founder is all about $.

If he / they think the lies hurt the income, he is gone.

It is not about honor, truth or integrity for these, it is the gold.

APACHEWHOKNOWS on February 5, 2015 at 10:08 PM

What about the “two harrowing nights spent there in a sand storm”….did he or did he not…?

d1carter on February 5, 2015 at 10:09 PM

“NORTHERNMOST AMERICANS IN IRAQ”

The SOB said that to Letterman.

Like he was leading the troops across the Potomac River.

This gut is disgusting.

ELSIS-1 on February 5, 2015 at 10:10 PM

Lying scumbag.

John the Libertarian on February 5, 2015 at 10:13 PM

“Battle Scars” is an insult considering how often Williams was shown strolling through a combat zone; what they didn’t show was the huge staff that he took with him everywhere, from a cosmetician to a lighting tech to a 4-strong bodyguard.

Bishop on February 5, 2015 at 10:15 PM

…I haven’t paid attention to NBC or MSLSD for years…maybe decades……because I thought they were bullsh!t…along with the other 2 major networks.

JugEarsButtHurt on February 5, 2015 at 10:15 PM

Never a winning career move to embarrass your boss in public.

Socratease on February 5, 2015 at 10:16 PM

Live by the lie,
Die by the lie.

Creeper.

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:16 PM

How are you, Fallon? Is mom still with us?

OmahaConservative on February 5, 2015 at 10:23 PM

How are you, Fallon? Is mom still with us?

OmahaConservative on February 5, 2015 at 10:23 PM

I was just hanging out until QOTD.

No, Mom passed early this morning. One of my dogs howled and woke me up and then I got the call. I was with her the day before and everyone told me to go home and get some rest. It was the first time that I left her and actually said, “Goodbye.”

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:28 PM

God Bless, Fallon

ELSIS-1 on February 5, 2015 at 10:30 PM

ELSIS-1 on February 5, 2015 at 10:30 PM

Thank you.

Williams is still a creeper.

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:32 PM

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:28 PM

…she’s at peace…with HIM….God Bless you Fallon!

JugEarsButtHurt on February 5, 2015 at 10:33 PM

JugEarsButtHurt on February 5, 2015 at 10:33 PM

((((Jugs)))) Thank you.

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:34 PM

Take care darlin’ she is in the arms of Jesus now…

OmahaConservative on February 5, 2015 at 10:35 PM

OmahaConservative on February 5, 2015 at 10:35 PM

Thank you, OC. I am weirdly at peace.

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:36 PM

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:28 PM

So sorry to hear that Fallon. Prayers for you and your family.

Flora Duh on February 5, 2015 at 10:40 PM

What about the “two harrowing nights spent there in a sand storm”….did he or did he not…?

d1carter on February 5, 2015 at 10:09 PM

How do you expect him to remember those details? You ever been stuck in the desert without makeup, hair dressers, catering and butt boys? Get off his case big meanie.

arnold ziffel on February 5, 2015 at 10:41 PM

Hi Fallon I don’t know you but I am sorry for your loss.

MrsVoorhees on February 5, 2015 at 10:41 PM

Prayers to you and your family Fallon.

31giddyup on February 5, 2015 at 10:42 PM

Flora Duh on February 5, 2015 at 10:40 PM

Thank you, dear Flora. I’m not going to make it to QOTD. Please give my regards to Newtie and the gang.

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:42 PM

MrsVoorhees on February 5, 2015 at 10:41 PM

Thank you. I did not mean to hijack this thread, but aren’t we sick of Brian “I got a purple heart” Williams, anyway?

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:44 PM

Thank you, dear Flora. I’m not going to make it to QOTD. Please give my regards to Newtie and the gang.

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:42 PM

Done.

Flora Duh on February 5, 2015 at 10:45 PM

31giddyup on February 5, 2015 at 10:42 PM

Thank you. I felt the prayers from HA this whole week.

Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:47 PM

MrsVoorhees on February 5, 2015 at 10:41 PM
Thank you. I did not mean to hijack this thread, but aren’t we sick of Brian “I got a purple heart” Williams, anyway?
Fallon on February 5, 2015 at 10:44 PM

I am sick of so many things in today’s society. You don’t have to apologize for taking over the thread. You need as much good vibes and comfort now and days ahead. My thoughts and prayers to you and anyone who has lost a loved one. Normal people that post here need as much support to get through so much today. Hugs to you.

MrsVoorhees on February 5, 2015 at 10:48 PM

Fallon, my condolences as well.
My mother also passed after my sister and I left the hospital.
We had been holding vigil for nearly 8 hours after they turned off the ventilator, expecting her to be with us only a short time as she had lung cancer, pneumonia, and COPD; she waited, breathing more easily than she had in months, until our other sister got there to say goodbye.

God takes our hand in everything.

(PS: Not a hijack when we are willingly on board.)

AesopFan on February 5, 2015 at 10:53 PM

Man! I can’t wait for NBC Nightly News with Rachel Maddow.

Brendon Carr on February 5, 2015 at 10:55 PM

Fallon, my condolences for your loss. You will all be in my prayers tonight. And don’t fret about the comment thread — some things are more important than the thread topic.

Ed Morrissey on February 5, 2015 at 10:57 PM

Ed Morrissey on February 5, 2015 at 10:57 PM

You are one classy man, Ed.

John the Libertarian on February 5, 2015 at 11:37 PM

arnold ziffel on February 5, 2015 at 10:41 PM

LOL…

d1carter on February 5, 2015 at 11:44 PM

Fallon;
My condolences on your loss.
You and yours are in my prayers tonight.

Deadeye on February 5, 2015 at 11:57 PM

BW followed the “Rather Standard”. He got the “facts” wtong, but the “story” is still true.

LaserBeam on February 6, 2015 at 12:07 AM

Liar, anchoring a network of liars,
propping up the Party of Lies,
and the Liar in Chief.

Todo es mentira en este mundo
Todo es mentira la verdad
todo es mentira yo me digo
Todo es mentira Por qu sera?

Kenosha Kid on February 6, 2015 at 2:02 AM

Shades of Bosnian sniper fire that Hillary was subjected to. LOL.

Krupnikas on February 6, 2015 at 2:04 AM

“Battle Scars” is an insult considering how often Williams was shown strolling through a combat zone; what they didn’t show was the huge staff that he took with him everywhere, from a cosmetician to a lighting tech to a 4-strong bodyguard.

Bishop on February 5, 2015 at 10:15 PM

That ain’t nothin. Edward R. Murrow had a hair stylist, two make-up artists, a nutritionist and eight bodyguards while in theater in WWII.

BigAlSouth on February 6, 2015 at 5:41 AM

This lying piece of crap doesn’t deserve to sit in the same helicopter with our soldiers. He’s a liar and a phony and should be kicked out of broadcasting.

rplat on February 6, 2015 at 6:37 AM

Which means that those executives probably knew it wasn’t true.

grumpyank on February 6, 2015 at 7:09 AM

Lately, “Lyin’ Brian” sure has been taking it up the……oooops never mind.

Dollayo on February 6, 2015 at 7:31 AM

Maybe in light of this, the GOP should pull all debates from NBC.

djaymick on February 6, 2015 at 7:36 AM

I don’t get the uproar about William’s story.

Pastors, entertainers, the water cooler adventurer all know that stories, true or not, are much more interesting and engaging when told in the first person.

Imagine if Brian Williams told this accurately – it would lose all most if not all of its punch. We want to hear stories of Adventure from people we know, not about characters we know little to nothing about.

Williams, a celebrity, is also an entertainer. That is how he makes money for himself and for NBC. He tells the story as if it happened to him because we want it to be true that he actually went through those experiences.

The first person narrative is always preferred – ask any gamer who plays shooter games.

Reuben Hick on February 6, 2015 at 8:01 AM

I don’t get the uproar about William’s story.

Pastors, entertainers, the water cooler adventurer all know that stories, true or not, are much more interesting and engaging when told in the first person.

Imagine if Brian Williams told this accurately – it would lose all most if not all of its punch. We want to hear stories of Adventure from people we know, not about characters we know little to nothing about.

When we’re dealing with fictional literature, yes, that’s what we want to hear. But not when we’re relying on the 4th Estate to report the truth accurately, and help keep power in check.

Williams, a celebrity, is also an entertainer. That is how he makes money for himself and for NBC. He tells the story as if it happened to him because we want it to be true that he actually went through those experiences.

The first person narrative is always preferred – ask any gamer who plays shooter games.

Reuben Hick on February 6, 2015 at 8:01 AM

The perception of Williams as a celebrity is part of the problem you’re having here. His position is not intended to fulfill the same function as Steve Colbert or Jim Stewart. The position of journalist or news anchor is something else entirely, and is meant to be a public service rather than a form of entertainment.

Because the bowing Williams, and those like him, do not fulfill their proper role as watchdogs, but rather serve as a kind of mouth piece for the current administration, a kind of Lieutenant of Barad-dûr for you Tolkien fans, our nation is at greater risk.

Star Bird on February 6, 2015 at 8:32 AM

The first person narrative is always preferred – ask any gamer who plays shooter games.

Reuben Hick on February 6, 2015 at 8:01 AM

Real news is not a game.

Star Bird on February 6, 2015 at 8:33 AM

I like Hillary’s lie better… spiraling down into enemy fire.

petefrt on February 6, 2015 at 8:57 AM

Don’t look now, but Tom Brokaw is agitating to get Williams fired:

“Brokaw wants Williams’ head on a platter,” an NBC source said. “He is making a lot of noise at NBC that a lesser journalist or producer would have been immediately fired or suspended for a false report.

Ward Cleaver on February 6, 2015 at 9:19 AM

Circling the wagons will only continue until THOSE CIRCLING THE WAGONS start getting shot at…

Dan Rather… Brian Williams… who’s next in the LSM?

Khun Joe on February 6, 2015 at 9:34 AM

Ed Morrissey on February 5, 2015 at 10:57 PM

O Captain! My Captain!

Thank you.

Thank you to everyone on HA for their thoughts and prayers.

Fallon on February 6, 2015 at 10:34 AM

Don’t look now, but Tom Brokaw is agitating to get Williams fired:

Ward Cleaver on February 6, 2015 at 9:19 AM

So 12 years later Brokaw decided it was a good idea to get all “authentic.”

Kenosha Kid on February 6, 2015 at 10:44 AM

Sad that clearly one news network does not critique another. This entire episode simply makes clear that they protect each other. Two pilots alerted the news media years ago ready to expose Williams’ lie concerning the helicopter incident. Yet, not a single network bothered to check. When anchors are viewed as “stars” and Presidents are viewed as “stars” we are in deep trouble.

tullius on February 6, 2015 at 11:13 AM