Katrina hotel manager: Maybe Williams "misremembered" that too

Another of Brian Williams’ courage-under-fire stories continues to unravel. After Williams admitted that the story he’d told for more than a decade about coming under fire in Iraq was untrue, people began questioning his recollections from reporting during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Williams holed up in the Ritz Carlton, which he later claimed became overrun with criminal gangs and medical emergencies. Williams himself claimed to have contracted dysentery while in the hotel, with it being so bad that he could hardly move while off-camera. The Washington Post puts together some of his claims in this video mash-up:


“That was just the start,” Williams says at one point in his 2014 conversation, recounting his Peabody Award-winning coverage while being the new anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News. It might be the start of the end of that career, however, as one key witness refutes almost all of what Williams has stated over the years. Myra DeGersdorff won the President’s Award from Ritz-Carlton that year for preventing the kind of lawlessness that Williams now claimed dominated the hotel:

The storm was worse than anyone expected. But DeGersdorff was ready. She enlisted a number of local cops to stay in a half-dozen of the hotel’s 452 rooms, and at any given moment there were at least “six or seven” officers on hand. She dispatched a team of “strong, tall” employees to barricade the exits with king-sized mattresses, and to “make sure those doors stayed locked,” she recalled in a telephone interview with The Washington Post. And she had set up an impromptu “MASH unit,” stocked with medicine from a nearby Walgreens and manned by more than a dozen doctors.

The preparation paid off. Though the hotel was packed, everyone there made it through one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history in one piece. And the very next year, in 2006, the company’s corporate office gave DeGersdorff the Ritz-Carlton President’s Award. …

That’s why DeGersdorff was surprised to flip on the news this week and see a perplexing story about NBC News anchor Brian Williams and the hotel she once managed. His recollection of what happened there didn’t match hers. In interviews that surfaced over the past week that she had never seen, Williams said the hotel was anything but secure. In fact, he told Tom Brokaw last summer, gangs had “overrun” the place. He spoke of seeing a dead body floating past the hotel. Williams also once told a book author that he got dysentery during Katrina. During his stay at the hotel, he said he declined an IV and then “had no medicine, nothing.”

DeGersdorff, now a resident of Scottsdale, Ariz., was confused. She said there was more than enough medicine and doctors in the MASH unit.

“Maybe he misremembered,” she told The Post of Williams’s claims. “I’m not going to judge him, because it was such an unpleasant week and there were times to be concerned. … And when there is that kind of concern, you can misremember. And maybe he was out there, and it wasn’t impossible he could have encountered a body, but I don’t think it was in the French Quarter. The French Quarter only got inches” of  flooding.


The news on this is getting worse all the time for NBC. Breitbart’s Michael Patrick Leahy has found a little more fabulism on Williams’ part regarding the 2003 incident that began the scrutiny of his work, and this time it did air on NBC.  In a March 2003 report shortly after the incident, Williams told Tom Brokaw that “we saw the guy” who shot the RPG — even though, as it turns out, the RPG incident didn’t happen to their unit at all:

In the initial NBC broadcast where he described his 2003 Iraq reporting mission, embattled NBC anchor Brian Williams falsely claimed that “we saw the guy . . . [who] put a round through the back of a chopper,” which he further and incorrectly claimed was “the Chinook [helicopter] in front of us.”

Williams filed three reports from Kuwait for NBC News on March 26, 2003. The first was a live broadcast at noon Eastern, the second at 6:30 pm Eastern on the NBC Nightly News, and the third later that night in prime time on NBC Dateline.

A review of all three transcripts (obtained from Nexis courtesy of MRC) shows that as the day wore on, Williams’s claims, and in particular the claim that he saw the guy who fired the RPG that downed the chopper “in front of us,” became less expansive. …

The Nexis transcript of that live noon interview with Tom Brokaw on NBC News shows that Williams said he saw an event that military eyewitnesses confirm he did not see:

Tom, I know you remember Somalia all too well, those hopped up pickup trucks, some of them with 50 caliber machine guns on the back. In our case, it was a rocket-propelled grenade underneath a tarp. We saw the guy. We flew over a bridge. He waved to the lead pilot very kindly. With that someone else removed the tarp, stood up, and put a round through the back of a chopper missing the rear rotor by four or five feet.


That pretty much kills the “false memory” argument, doesn’t it? Williams’ reporting later morphed into being the recollection of the lead chopper pilot, and then in the third telling lost its first-person reporting entirely. Amazingly, either NBC News executives didn’t notice (and what would that say about their news instincts?), or they tolerated it and promoted Williams anyway.

Lloyd Grove writes that panic is hitting NBC News now, almost twelve years later when everyone else is connecting the dots:

Indeed, The New York Times reported that a damaging new survey conducted by an influential research firm, the Marketing Arm, showed Williams’ “trustworthiness” ranking plummeting from 23rd to 835th on its closely watched celebrity index.

“My God, what’s happening to Brian is in the Zeitgeist,” marveled an NBC News wag on Monday. “He’s trumping Bruce Jenner on social media. I mean, cross-dressing Bruce Jenner killed somebody, but Brian Williams is still trending.”

Holt’s 35-second on-air announcement was ominously at odds with Williams’ own Saturday press release that implied a brief hiatus and vowed: “Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”

Holt, however, made no mention of a “return.” Neither did NBC News President Deborah Turness, who on Friday launched an internal fact-checking probe to be led by NBC News’s chief investigative producer, Richard Esposito.

Some have turned their rhetorical guns on Williams’ critics, including two people I respect and enjoy reading, Dan Abrams at Mediaite and Ron Fournier at National Journal. Both focused on the supposed “bile” of Williams’ critics and the fervor in which media figures have gone after him. In my column for The Week, I argue that Williams is not the victim — and that consumers who get told lies have every right to be angry about it, and demand accountability:


Mediaite’s Dan Abrams, who worked with Williams at NBC, decries the “obsession” to claim Williams’ “head.” He declares himself “troubled by the fervor, occasional glee, and potentially disproportionate fury emanating from an … alliance of certain capital-J journalists, conservative bloggers, and some who simply despise any rich and famous journalist.”

Ron Fournier offered a different kind of scolding over the scrutiny and criticism Williams is receiving. Calling it “the bile brigade,” the National Journal columnist quoted former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau in lamenting, “No wonder we never get shit done.” Fournier acknowledged the legitimacy of the criticism of Williams, but said “the coverage has an End Times vibe.” Social media was intended for “a more vibrant public discussion … to educate and unite the masses,” Fournier argued, and not for the “bile brigade.” …

The “bile brigade” consists of people who watch, read, and listen to news, and who want to have it delivered by people and organizations who tell the truth. When they discover that the top man in one organization not only has fudged the truth on a story he reported but done so for more than a decade, and that the news organization itself knew that a problem existed and did nothing about it, those consumers will be just as unhappy as when they buy a car with defects that the manufacturer knew but ignored to protect its profit.

The idea that we don’t get stuff done because of the vibrant debate over accountability is a very strange argument coming from a media that styles itself as a check on power. Most people are perfectly capable of multitasking, juggling many different news stories and understanding them while living their lives. The new media outlets parsing out Williams’ other reporting are also analyzing legislation, debating policies, and doing other work besides arguing the finer points of “Deflategate,” another of the distractions that Fournier laments.

Besides, if getting stuff done depended so heavily on media performance, doesn’t it make sense to hold that media to the highest standards? Williams is not a victim here, and neither was Rather in 2004. Both suffered the natural consequences of their own actions. The accountability that the age of new media allows should produce a higher level of performance from those entrusted by audiences to inform them properly — and those who profess to believe in checks on power should at least cheer the necessarily messy process that produces that accountability. Rather than get angry at the “bile brigade,” we should apply some anger and outrage to the BS brigade instead.


As media outlets like the Washington Post, CNN, and others are discovering, there is a lot to investigate in Williams’ claims — and about NBC News’ tacit approval of them over the years. Pursuing that story isn’t keeping us from doing anything else except offering blind trust in news organizations and those who don’t perform with integrity. We should be celebrating rather than lamenting that new reality.

Update: Ron Fournier responded graciously on Twitter:

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