Audio: Williams tells Stars & Stripes, "All we knew is we had been fired upon"

The comeback attempt of Brian Williams started today, with an exclusive interview given to the publication that exposed his “misremembered” Iraqi adventure [see update — interview was February 4th]. Williams spoke with Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten by phone, who says at one point, “All we knew is that we were fired upon,” which actually didn’t happen. Williams seems to have been surprised to learn through the course of reporting over the past few days that there were two groups flying that day, and that the other group took fire and his didn’t:

Stars and Stripes reporter Travis J. Tritten: Speaking to these guys today they all told me they don’t understand how you could make a mistake like this. It is the opening of the war, the first week of the invasion. These are memories that are seared into people’s minds. There’s all this buildup to the war. And all of them told me they couldn’t understand how you could misremember what aircraft you were on or whether your aircraft was hit, so I’m just wondering how that could happen?

Brian Williams: Same reasoning in reverse. It was my first engagement of the war and remember I was — we were all I think scared, I have yet to meet the veteran who doesn’t admit to cinching up a little bit when it starts, and it all became a fog of getting down on the ground, what do we do now, taking our direction from the air crews — I’m traveling with a retired four-star general — and then the arrival of the armored ‘mech’ platoon. So, a professional will look at this differently. They do into a kind of hyper-drive. I did what a civilian, an untrained civilian, would do in that instance and it was being scared. I think anyone in my shoes would admit that. It could not have been a more foreign environment. All we knew is we had been fired upon. All we knew was we had set down and then with the arrival of the sandstorm, how do we defend our little desert bivouac area.

A little while later in the conversation, Williams still appears mystified as to how the confusion began:

I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other. The fact is, I remember three aircraft going down. I was on one of them.

Tritten then tells Williams that his chopper was part of a different group “in trail,” and Williams says that’s the first time he’s heard that. Really? It has been widely reported now for days [see below], and had been information available since the time it happened. That’s the problem with Williams’ explanation. He’s a news reporter, so why didn’t he just ask if they’d taken fire before going the air with the story? And how does that translate into telling people at other times that he’d been in the helicopter that took the RPG?

Williams will no doubt get kudos for trying to get in front of the story, but this won’t quite cut it. Tritten doesn’t get around to asking him how the audio of the actual attack on the other group got into their video for the NBC News report, a point that Tritten himself raised with Jake Tapper. Still, Williams’ responses here don’t resolve the basic fact that Williams misreported the story and then kept changing the story for 12 years to aggrandize his role in the incident. It won’t stop people from looking at other stories he’s been telling about Hurricane Katrina and the Israel-Lebanon war, either.

Should Brian Williams leave the anchor chair for NBC News? If that sounds like a question made for a pollster, don’t expect media-based surveys any time soon, since the conflict of interest involved there would be rather obvious. Rasmussen gets the pole position for independents today with a survey of 800 adults from this weekend:

Forty percent (40%) of American Adults think Williams should resign because of this, according to the latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone poll. Thirty-five percent (35%) disagree, but 25% are not sure. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Forty percent (40%) also say they are less likely to believe the reporting on NBC News because Williams didn’t tell the truth. Eight percent (8%) are more likely to believe NBC’s reporting now, while 45% say the Williams incident has no impact on their confidence in the network’s reporting.

Yeah, but does Williams really poll that much worse than other media figures? Surprisingly, even this soon after the scandal broke, not really:

Forty-three percent (43%) of Americans have a favorable opinion of Williams, including 13% with a Very Favorable one. Thirty-three percent (33%) view him unfavorably, with 18% who hold a Very Unfavorable view. Twenty-four percent (24%) don’t enough about Williams to voice even a soft opinion of him.

Twenty-eight percent (28%) also don’t know what they think of ABC-News anchor George Stephanopolous. Forty-five percent (45%) have a favorable view of the former senior Clinton administration official-turned-newsman, while 27% regard him unfavorably. This includes 13% with a Very Favorable opinion and 11% with a Very Unfavorable one.

Scott Pelley is the evening anchor of the other of the big three traditional networks, CBS. Just 20% have a favorable view of Pelley, including five percent who see him Very Favorably. Eighteen percent (18%) share an unfavorable opinion, with seven percent (7%) who hold a Very Unfavorable one. A whopping 62% have no opinion of Pelley.

There are gender and partisan gaps in this, although perhaps not as pronounced as one might think. Men would prefer to see Williams hit the road 45/32, while women lean the other direction 35/38. Younger women are more hostile to Williams after the scandal, with a 49/31 plurality for ouster among those under 40. Republicans want Williams out with a solid 2:1 majority of 56/25, but Democrats want him to stay 26/46. Unaffiliated voters trend close to the overall poll with a 42/32 plurality for his departure.

The point may be moot on two levels. First, only 26% of Rasmussen’s respondents watch the broadcast network news programs on a daily or near-daily basis; half of all respondents rarely or never watch them. That goes to 60% among adults under 40 years of age, with only 17% bothering to regularly watch the alphabet-network news programming. The anchor job is becoming an anachronism. Second, those who are watching have begun voting with their feet:

Two days after the NBC News anchor apologized for lying about dodging danger during the Iraq War, his nightly newscast was beaten in the ratings by rival ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

ABC’s broadcast had 8.46 million viewers on Friday while NBC’s “Nightly News” had just under 8 million, the Nielsen company reported.

From time to time, ABC has beaten NBC in the daily ratings. On the previous Friday, Jan. 30, ABC outpaced NBC by almost 400,000 viewers.

But the latest Nielsen report is troubling for Williams and the Peacock Network because NBC has been consistently winning the ratings war on a week-to-week basis.

If NBC News drops out of the lead on a more consistent basis, they’ll want to shake things up with a change, and that won’t be good news for Williams, either.

Update: Commenter Dusty says Williams’ response today boils down to this excuse: I’m a news reporter in the midst of an event occurring with a lot of different people and though it’s my job to ferret out the truth of what actually happened and I had over 50 hours of exclusive access to the people involved, not only could I not get what happened to them right, I couldn’t figure out what happened to me.

Not exactly a confidence or credibility builder, even apart from the other instances of exaggeration coming to the surface.

Update: The interview took place on February 4th, but was published today, a fact I missed in the presentation. This explains a couple of points I raised. Tritten only told Tapper about the audio issue on February 6th and may not have been aware of it before then. The issue of having two groups of helicopters had only just been raised, so Williams may not have been aware of it — although that’s not much of an excuse, since he was there on the ground reporting on it and should have asked at the time. Also, while today’s not the beginning of the comeback in terms of Williams’ efforts, it still seems pretty clear that Williams hoped to close out the controversy with this interview.