Variety's buried lede: "Senior" NBC News execs "counseled" Williams to stop telling helicopter story

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.

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