New Orleans paper: Say, this Williams story on Katrina really doesn't add up; Update: Pilot retracts corroboration

The ire of Tom Brokaw may be the least of Brian Williams’ problems this morning. After the shocking admission on Wednesday from the 10-year anchor of NBC Nightly News that he’d lied about his experience in Iraq, critics began poring over other claims Williams has made about his field reporting. Focus fell almost immediately on a story he told about the tough conditions he endured in Hurricane Katrina, and now the New Orleans Advocate reports that there seems to be large holes in that tale as well:

“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 said in a 2006 interview. …

“My week, two weeks there was not helped by the fact that I accidentally ingested some of the floodwater. I became very sick with dysentery, our hotel was overrun with gangs, I was rescued in the stairwell of a five-star hotel in New Orleans by a young police officer. We are friends to this day. And uh, it just was uh, I look back at total agony.” But the French Quarter, the original high ground of New Orleans, was not impacted by the floodwaters that overwhelmed the vast majority of the city. …

Dr. Brobson Lutz, a former city health director who manned an EMS trailer that was set up in the 900 block of Dumaine Street, a block from his house in the French Quarter, said he was a fan of Williams but dubious of his claims.

“We were never wet. It was never wet,” he remarked of the conditions in the city’s most historic neighborhood. As for dysentery, “I saw a lot of people with cuts and bruises and such, but I don’t recall a single, solitary case of gastroenteritis during Katrina or in the whole month afterward,” Lutz said.

As for Williams saying he accidentally drank floodwaters, Lutz added, “I don’t know anybody that’s tried that to see, but my dogs drank it, and they didn’t have any problems.”

On the other hand, a contemporaneous report found by Jeryl Bier last night seems to at least corroborate the flooding part of Williams’ account. Williams holed up in the Ritz Carlton, where a doctor set up a “MASH unit,” as Bloomberg put it at the time:

Personally, my family and I are fine. My family is safe in Jackson, MS, and I am now a temporary resident of the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New Orleans. I figured if it was my time to go, I wanted to go in a place with a good wine list. In addition, this hotel is in a very old building on Canal Street that could and did sustain little damage. Many of the other hotels sustained significant loss of windows, and we expect that many of the guests may be evacuated here.

Things were obviously bad yesterday, but they are much worse today. Overnight the water arrived. Now Canal Street (true to its origins) is indeed a canal. The first floor of all downtown buildings is underwater. I have heard that Charity Hospital and Tulane are limited in their ability to care for patients because of water. Ochsner is the only hospital that remains fully functional. However, I spoke with them today and they too are on generator and losing food and water fast. The city now has no clean water, no sewerage system, no electricity, and no real communications. Bodies are still being recovered floating in the floods. We are worried about a cholera epidemic. Even the police are without effective communications. We have a group of armed police here with us at the hotel that are admirably trying to exert some local law enforcement. This is tough because looting is now rampant. Most of it is not malicious looting. These are poor and desperate people with no housing and no medical care and no food or water trying to take care of themselves and their families. Unfortunately, the people are armed and dangerous. We hear gunshots frequently. Most of Canal street is occupied by armed looters who have a low threshold for discharging their weapons. We hear gunshots frequently. The looters are using makeshift boats made of pieces of styrofoam to access. We are still waiting for a significant national guard presence.

The health care situation here has dramatically worsened overnight. Many people in the hotel are elderly and small children. Many other guests have unusual diseases. We have commandered the world famous French Quarter Bar to turn into an makeshift clinic. There is a team of about 7 doctors and PA and pharmacists. We anticipate that this will be the major medical facility in the central business district and French Quarter.

This mentions “bodies being recovered in the floods,” but in general, not at the location. This account seems to verify that some flooding took place at or near the Ritz, but says nothing about dysentery. Perhaps this might be another case where the germ of a good story flowered into embellishment — or it still might be entirely true, or entirely false.

The bad news for Williams is that his admission has people looking into these tales, and that the rest of the media is noticing it — especially the New York City media. The Advocate takes a very skeptical look at Williams’ claims, and that has been picked up as a front-page story in the New York Daily News. The New York Times, which covered the admission on page B-10, has an above-the-fold front page story on Williams today, also taking a skeptical look at his credibility, and his explanations:

For years, Brian Williams had been telling a story that wasn’t true. On Wednesday night, he took to his anchor chair on “NBC Nightly News” to apologize for misleading the public.

On Thursday, his real problems started.

A host of military veterans and pundits came forward on television and social media, challenging Mr. Williams’s assertion that he had simply made a mistake when he spoke, on several occasions, about having been in a United States military helicopter forced down by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. Some went so far as to call for his resignation.

They also pushed back on claims made by a pilot interviewed by Jake Tapper at CNN, who seemed to give Williams a little breathing room yesterday afternoon. So did the New York Post, who found the commander of Williams’ flight into Iraq, and who refutes what another pilot told Tapper. The only hits scored on the choppers in his formation, writes Chris Simeone, came from the dust storm that forced them to ground the choppers:

We were a flight of two, and I was the rear aircraft. Our flight to Objective Rams was uneventful, with the exception of a desert dust storm that caused deteriorating conditions not suitable for flight. We determined that we would not make it back to Kuwait as planned.

When we arrived at Objective Rams, we found a US armor unit on the objective. There was also a CH-47 from the “Big Windy” unit out of Germany. The CH-47 was already shut down, and the entire crew was no longer at the aircraft. We dropped off the bridges and landed next to the parked CH-47 and the Bradley Fighting Vehicles due to the weather. After landing, we learned that the parked aircraft had received small-arms fire and had been hit with an RPG on their mission.

However, if one listens to what the other pilot told Jake Tapper, a point of confusion arises. Rich Krell says that they were a flight of three helicopters, not two, and that they were flying in close formation:

Krell explained that, contrary to Williams’ comments in the past, there were three helicopters flying in close formation, not four. “One of the birds broke down, so we were a flight of three,” Krell said. “We were hauling metal bridges.” Williams was in the back of Krell’s aircraft along with three other NBC staffers. Krell referred to his Chinook as the “second bird” in the formation. The “first bird,” right in front of the “second bird,” was struck by the RPG. Due to his seat in the back, Williams was most likely unable to witness the RPG attack, Krell said. All three of the helicopters were hit by small arms fire, Krell said, supporting Williams’ past claims about that. “The bridge expansions we were hauling took most of the hits,” Krell said. The three Chinooks took evasive maneuvers. Krell’s helicopter dropped off its payload, then met up with the other two about 45 minutes later. That may explain why the other crew members told Stars and Stripes that Williams arrived in the area later.

So the one on the ground may have been part of the same three-helicopter formation that everyone seems to agree was in play.  Simeone and Kelly say one was on the ground and the crew had already disembarked when Williams arrived; Krell says two were on the ground when their one landed. This sounds more like a “fog of war” issue than Williams’ story became, and it may be impossible to reconcile the two accounts.

The New York Times notes that Simeone “strongly disputed” Krell’s account after they heard it, as did Allan Kelly, who also said that the convoy carrying Williams did not come under fire. The Times ominously adds this point in its front-page news story:

Other prominent TV journalists have made big mistakes. Dan Rather of CBS relied on bogus documents for a 2004 story questioning President Bush’s National Guard record. In 2013, Lara Logan took a leave of absence from “60 Minutes” for a flawed story about an attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya.

This is a different situation, though. If it turns out that Mr. Williams intentionally misled the public, it will be an instance not of careless or irresponsible reporting, but of a journalist lying for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

That seems to be the point that has the media buzz in New York hitting the high pitch we see today. Still, unless another case of lying for the purposes of aggrandizement is exposed, it doesn’t seem as though NBC will make a change in its anchor position. (The LA Times confirms this, at least for now.) They just signed Williams to a five-year contract, and the options for replacing him seem … limited. Lester Holt could possibly do it, but who else? A big change now would hammer the organization, and the loss of revenue could be more concerning to the execs than the loss of credibility. It would take a bigger scandal for them to toss that aside, one that Williams’ apology doesn’t cover.

The bigger problem for NBC News in this scandal — and for ABC and CBS as well — is that this will accelerate the erosion of trust in broadcast news, and especially undermine the value of network anchors/managing editors. As one person put it to Page Six today, they are really nothing more than news readers anyway. In this age of 24-hour news cycles, anchors are an anachronism, and it’s the interview-show hosts that really drive the TV news cycle and build the brands.

Update: This looks like bad news for Williams, as CNN’s Brian Stelter explains:

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.”

He said, “For the past 12 years I have been trying to forget everything that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan; now that I let it back, the nightmares come back with it, so I want to forget again.” He concluded, “The men in that article deserve respect. Please understand.”

The NBC P.R. person now says the network can’t confirm which person piloted Williams’ helicopter. The situation remains murky and many questions remain unanswered. (There is somebody that can clear a lot of this up — and that’s Williams.)

Bottom line: this pilot is revising his story – and, because of that, I’m revising mine. What initially looked like an account that supported some of Brian Williams’ war story — that he came “under fire” that day — no longer appears to be true.

One can understand why Krell could get confused; he’s been in a lot of action. Williams … not so much.

Update: Just as an aside, the pilot was part of the convoying that took place there, but now can’t be certain his craft carried Williams. He came forward because that’s what he remembered, but the testimony of others has him questioning his recall. CNN followed up with him after the NYT piece came out, as they should, and promptly reported that he’d changed his story. Sometimes that happens, and the news organization is supposed to react quickly to it. CNN did just that, so it’s not a failure on their part, but just one of the things that happens with eyewitnesses on occasion. The issue here is still Williams and NBC News. To that point, pay attention to Stelter’s explanation as to why CNN trusted this particular source, 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.

Now Stelter writes that NBC News can’t confirm that info, which means one can imagine what was said before. So … once again, this is an NBC News scandal, and not just a Williams scandal.