NBC News’ problems are about to get a lot worse. CNN’s Jake Tapper interviewed Travis Tritten, the Stars and Stripes reporter who broke the story about Brian Williams’ false story about coming under RPG and small-arms fire while covering the opening days of the invasion of Iraq. Earlier, a pilot who had thought that Williams had been in his helicopter while taking some small-arms fire (whom Tapper had interviewed) retracted that claim after three other veterans disputed it.
Tapper and Tritten discuss that, but Tapper then plays part of the original report from NBC News in 2003, which includes radio chatter about taking small-arms fire. Tritten then says that one of the three witnesses, Joseph Miller, says that the chatter actually came from another unit — which means that NBC News edited it into the Williams footage to match his story about coming under fire. This picks up at the 4-minute mark:
TAPPER: [Chris Simeone] said that the only thing that hit their helicopter was dust, and that nothing that Williams reported in 2003 was accurate. I want to play some of what Brian Williams reported in 2003, in which there is this moment when somebody says there was small arms fire coming into the convoy. Let’s play that.
BRIAN WILLIAMS [VIDEO]: Indeed, just before we’re able to make our drop, radio traffic makes clear that this routine mission is running into trouble.
RADIO CHATTER [VIDEO]: We took fire on the way in. We currently are not under fire, I say again, not under fire, but we look for some kind of security, over.
TAPPER: So there is this moment where somebody’s saying our helicopter is taking small arms fire and it’s not taking it now, but they were and we need to find some place for security, over — that’s in the radio. Do you have any idea what that was in reference to?
TRITTEN: I do, actually. I spoke with the flight engineer on Williams’ Chinook, Joseph Miller, and what he told me is that Williams and the NBC crew, actually, they’d been given a headset and they had taken a microphone, and they had put it in the earpiece of the headset so that they could pick up the radio communications between the company that they were in and another company of Chinooks that was flying a separate mission in the opposite direction. So what you’re hearing is that radio chatter from that other company that was coming under fire.
In other words, there are two problems with the original report. The first and most basic is that the video of the helicopter drop does not match the audio in the sense that the communications were coming from a completely different set of Chinooks. The second and much bigger problem is that the decision to air that mismatched audio and video had to have been made deliberately. Note that Williams very specifically says “our drop” when referring to “this routine mission is running into trouble.”
If what Tritten and Miller say is true, then not only did Williams tell a false story for 12 years, Williams and his entire NBC crew presented a false report to NBC viewers. They edited in the radio traffic of another mission in order to make it look like their mission came under fire. Some have asked why Williams’ crew didn’t come forward to confirm or deny Williams’ story; well, this would explain why they’d prefer to keep quiet. If Tritten and Miller got this wrong, then we’d better start seeing some denials from everyone involved — and the raw footage and audio from 2003 to confirm it.
This raises the stakes considerably for NBC News. It’s no longer Williams lying in other venues, if Tritten and Miller are correct. It’s that Williams cooked a story and put it on the air. A simple apology won’t cover that kind of journalistic sin.
Update: An interesting question from Twitter:
So that would mean that they assumed the chatter was their own patrol, which … could be possible, but seems very unlikely. Besides, news reporters are supposed to confirm facts before reporting on them, and the unit’s crew members were right there to discuss it. They certainly knew they hadn’t come under fire.
Update: The RPG story has been around since 2004, as Morgen Richmond discovered today:
— Morgen (@morgenr) February 6, 2015
Update: One other point on the question asked. If a CH-47 was taking incoming fire, it would likely be firing back. And that noise would be unmistakable. [Update later: That’s probably much less likely; although the Chinook has guns, on a material transport, they probably wouldn’t be able to return fire effectively, as commenters note.]