NBC News anchor Brian Williams is in quite a bit of trouble over his admission that his decade-long claim to have endured heavy fire while flying in a military helicopter over Baghdad in 2003 was a fabrication. Accordingly, journalists are beginning to review other extraordinary claims Williams made over the course of his career, and they are not short on material to parse.
The team over at GotNews flagged an interesting moment from a 2006 interview in which Williams waxed regretful about the devastating flooding in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
“When you look out of your hotel room window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh in Indonesia and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country,” Williams said. “I beat that storm. I was there before it arrived. I rode it out with people who later died in the Superdome.”
It’s a harrowing, traumatic tale, and it might be true. No doubt, bodies did float down the streets of New Orleans. People did die while awaiting help from local, state, and federal authorities in the Superdome.
But did Williams actually see bodies floating down the street from his hotel in the French Quarter? Well, it’s possible, but reports from the period shed some doubt on this claim.
Reporting from The Times-Picayune, Fox News, and The New York Times all state clearly that the French Quarter was not flooded in the same way that other areas of the city, like the Lower Ninth Ward, were inundated.
Even during the height of the crisis, The Times described the French Quarter as an “oasis of wary calm” amid an escalating crisis. “Outside, the Quarter’s elegant 150-year-old buildings look relatively unruffled, except for some loosened bricks, having been spared the worst of Hurricane Katrina’s winds and sitting high enough to have avoided the flooding,” the report read.
“The French Quarter has always had a built-in advantage when a hurricane approaches,” NPR reported in 2005. “It sits on a slightly elevated piece of land beside the Mississippi River.” This portion of the city sustained heavy wind damage from the Hurricane, but the damage from rising flood waters emanating from Lake Pontchartrain was minimal in this part of the city.
This Times-Picayune map compiled with the aid of data provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (click here for greater detail) shows the extent of the devastating flooding from Katrina and indicates that the French Quarter, which extends from the Mississippi River to N. Rampart Street, was spared the worst of the flood waters.
Now, perhaps Williams was thinking of another area of the city that was more heavily flooded when he recalled bodies floating down the streets. Maybe there is no discrepancy here at all, and Williams recalled seeing more flooding than was officially recorded. Who knows? But the fact that these and perhaps more episodes from Williams’ past are now suspect and will be revisited is an indication of the scope of the credibility problem with which NBC and the Nightly News are now contending.
It may be impossible for the network to avoid suspending the anchor while questions about his trustworthiness are investigated thoroughly and transparently.
UPDATE: In a 2006 interview, Williams described his horror at seeing bodies in the streets of New Orleans near the Superdome.
“I will remember all of the dead for the rest of my life. When you come around the corner and see a body face down within sight of the Superdome on a city street with children and adults walking by it, you know something has come unraveled.”
It’s possible Williams confused this incident and his earlier accounts of seeing the streets in the French Quarter flooding when the levees broke. Again, this could simply have been a memory lapse on his part with no intent to exaggerate his experience in New Orleans, or it might have been something more unconscionable. That his intentions are in question is a problem of Williams’ own making.
An earlier version of this post failed to credit GotNews with clipping the original 2006 interview.