Brian Williams may have taken a vacation from his job, but media analysts have worked overtime this weekend on his earlier stories to do some fact checking. As a result, the anchor and managing editor of NBC News may have more explaining to do on his return, if that time ever comes. When Williams admitted lying about coming under fire in Iraq, some immediately began to question Williams’ stories about his experiences in Hurricane Katrina, specifically whether his hotel came under control of armed criminal gangs, and that he’d suffered dysentery while holed up in the Ritz-Carlton.
The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi reports that it’s difficult to verify Williams’ accounts — in part because the details of his claims have shifted over time, as they did with the Iraq-RPG story:
The story, however, was a little different as reported by Judith Sylvester, who interviewed Williams for “The Media and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.” In this version, Williams didn’t bed down in a stairwell when he came down with dysentery. He had a battery-powered TV that he watched from his eighth-floor Ritz-Carlton room when the hotel became “uninhabitable,” as Sylvester put it.
As Sylvester described Williams’s story, the “Ritz-Carlton soon became a gang target.” She wrote Williams said he spent one night on his hotel room floor, lying between the window and bed so it would look like the room was unoccupied. “You’d hear young, kind-of-thuggish kids walking about and down the hall all night,” Williams said. “It was terrible. I’m not sure which night I decided to get out of there.”
By the time Williams was interviewed about the experience by Tom Brokaw last year at a Columbia Journalism School event, he claimed “our hotel was overrun with gangs.” …
Then another man named Richard Rhodes who stayed at the Ritz as well said he didn’t remember any gangs, telling the New Orleans Advocate that Williams had exaggerated. The hotel had allowed employee families to bunker down. “There was a kind of criminal element that had gotten in, and somebody had worked there and they brought their family,” Rhodes told the paper. “They were leaving the doors open, and other people were trying to come. Two off-duty police officers were running around keeping the peace. There were scary moments, but criminal gangs? That’s crazy.”
A local activist named Leo Watermeier said much the same to the Guardian. He said there weren’t any gangs. “People were afraid that was the case,” he said. “I don’t think that really was the situation. Once darkness came, that was frightening. Just because it was pitch-black. And you felt vulnerable. … But I didn’t see anything.”
It’s difficult to tell what actually happened at the hotel. The Ritz-Carlton hasn’t commented much. It’s possible gangs overtook the hotel, brandished guns and terrorized the people inside. It’s possible Williams confronted a gang bent on stealing his car when he emerged from the hotel. But it’s also possible this was another case of what the American Journalism Review called “myth-making in New Orleans.”
Interestingly, the New Orleans Advocate report yesterday bolstered some of Williams’ Katrina claims — at least a little. There was flooding around the Ritz, but just enough to get inside the hotel’s first floor and cause damage:
Pictures shot at the time by a guest at the hotel show there was water outside the Ritz. It’s unclear how deep the water was: It’s shallow enough that the sidewalk below is clearly visible, but also deep enough that a boat is bobbing in the water. It is also unclear what day the pictures were taken.
A Times-Picayune account from Sept. 1, 2005, cites a hotel manager describing the Ritz as being surrounded by water and discussing the Ritz-Carlton’s efforts to evacuate guests. A subsequent report on Sept. 8 by the same reporter, Rebecca Mowbray, says the Ritz sustained significant flood damage and was shuttered. It would remain closed for at least 15 months during a renovation that cost more than $100 million, according to news accounts.
Tulane University professor Rich Campanella, who has published several books on the city’s geography and topography, took photographs outside the Ritz on the day after the storm that show shallow water in the street, and the sidewalks free of water. He noted that the water rose through the next day, Wednesday. …
Stories vary on just how high the water reached outside the hotel, and the likelihood of a body bobbing past. Most maps that attempted to show the floodwaters’ reach show the area receiving between 0 and 2 feet of water.
The front-page image was supplied to the Advocate by NBC News as corroboration of the flood outside the hotel. As one can see, it’s true that water was in the street, but it’s well below ankle level for Williams in the shot. This looks like the story about Katyusha rockets passing “just underneath the helicopter I was riding” in Israel — a large embellishment on a less-impressive reality.
“There were Katyusha rockets passing just beneath the helicopter I was riding in,” he told a student interviewer from Fairfield (Conn.) University that year.
But Williams didn’t mention that in his own account of the helicopter trip, written on an NBC News blog in July the previous year.
In that version, he was in a Blackhawk helicopter “at 1,500 feet,” accompanied by “a high-ranking general in the Israeli Defense Forces” and that rocket fire preceded them rather than passed beneath them.
Williams wrote that the pilot reported “some shelling right now . . . They landed about 30 seconds ago.”
Williams wrote that he noticed “trails of smoke and dust” where rockets had landed in the countryside. “Then,” he wrote, “I noticed something out the window. From a distance of six miles, I witnessed a rocket launch. A rising trail of smoke, then a second rocket launch, an orange flash and more smoke — as a rocket heads off toward Israel.”
On the original helicopter-under-RPG-attack story, Jay Rosen of PressThink says that the “conflation” began almost immediately:
Today, a PressThink reader sent me this link. It’s from a book NBC published in 2003: Operation Iraqi Freedom: the Insider story. On p. 71 we find a photo of Brian Williams with some soldiers. The caption reads:
With NBC anchor Brian Williams, producer Justin Balding, and analyst General Wayne Balding, retired, aboard, Army Chinook helicopters are forced to make a desert landing after being attacked by Iraqi Fedayeen. For two nights, the NBC crew and their Army unit waited out the fierce sandstorm in the desert.
That says: With Williams and crew aboard, Chinook helicopters were forced to land after being attacked from the ground. But what we know now from the pilots involved is different: The Chinook helicopters with Williams and crew aboard were forced to land after getting caught in a sandstorm. (See these interviews with the pilots by CNN’s Stelter.) So right there the “moving to the middle” that Carr wrote about began: in September of 2003.
On the page before that (p. 70) the text says:
Producer Justin Balding recalls, “One of the chopper crews ahead of us spotted a pickup truck. As the Iraqis waved, a man suddenly ripped off the tarpaulin to reveal another man armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher. He took aim and fired.”
This describes as one mission what we now know was two: one 15 to 30 minutes behind the other, according to the pilots.
I would not call these earth-shattering discrepancies, or startling discoveries. But they do bear on a point I made in my last post. The involvement of other NBC personnel in misdescribing what went on that day is part of what makes this episode so disturbing.
That’s different than what Balding now says. Michael Patrick Leahy reports that Balding now denies ever having made that claim:
Ward’s 2004 book is the only available evidence to support the claim that Balding ever said the helicopter he and Williams were riding in was hit by RPG fire, either publicly or privately.
A source familiar with the operations of NBC News specifically denies Balding ever made such a claim to his colleagues there.
No one else besides Ward has come forward stating that Balding made such a claim.
Except for NBC News, we now see. They claim that Balding told the same story, right down to seeing the “tube” [see update]:
Clearly, this has been an NBC News production since 2003. And NBC News owns it — which makes it difficult to see how they throw Williams out all by himself.
Update: If you read that carefully, Balding seems to be saying that the helicopter crew saw the RPG launcher — but NBC News put that in the context of the false claim that Williams’ and Balding’s Chinook was “forced to make a desert landing after being attacked by Iraqi Fedayeen.” That simply wasn’t true, and Balding could have told NBC News that before they published the book.
Update: Initially, I wrote that the book was authored by Tom Brokaw, based on its listing in an Amazon search. Brokaw only wrote the forward; the rest is credited to “NBC Enterprises.” I’ve taken out the error from the last update.