As almost everyone knows by now, NBC anchor Brian Williams’s tale about RPG and small-arms fire hitting a helicopter he was in, forcing it to land, isn’t true. Williams, after servicemen called him out on it recently on social media, admitted that the story he’d told a number of times over the past decade or so wasn’t accurate. That’s wrong. But what’s maybe just as damning is how he apologized for the mistake — by pretending it wasn’t a moral misstep at all.
Here’s what he told NBC viewers last night:
On this broadcast last week, in an effort to honor and thank a veteran who protected me and so many others after a ground-fire incident in the desert during the Iraq War invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of twelve years ago. . . . I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire; I was instead in a following aircraft. We all landed after the ground-fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert. This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran, and by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not. I hope they know they have my greatest respect, and also now my apology.
Actually, they have a crappy and likely dishonest apology. For one, you might get the impression Williams was indeed in a formation with (“following”) an aircraft that was forced down, if not the actual aircraft. But vets tell Stars and Stripes, which originally broke the fabrication story, that he wasn’t at all near the formation of three aircraft that took fire, and just happened to have to land where the downed aircraft was. One other helicopter pilot has now told CNN that Williams’s craft was in the three-chopper formation, but other soldiers tell Stars and Stripes that Williams’s apology is still misleading. In any case, doesn’t NBC’s man owe his viewers all the right details of a story he repeatedly told with the wrong details?
And Williams told this story plenty of times without drawing attention to one special veteran. Obviously, the general story would always be a credit to the bravery of American servicemen, but let’s be honest: Even when it was attached to a “thanks for your service,” it was in part or mostly a boast about a tough-guy experience — one Williams had thanks to the bravery and effort of American servicemen. Pretending that reciting such a tale is some act of public service is gross.
That’s hardly a mortal sin: Plenty of decent people — myself included — have stretched a story to impress others, though likely when they’re younger and not in front of millions of people that trust them to report the nightly news. That is almost certainly what Williams did. But he doesn’t have the integrity or the bravery to admit that — he’s claiming his memory just got mixed up, meaning he wouldn’t really bear much moral culpability at all.
Memory is a tricky thing, and it is easy to misremember details of important events (the time of day, say, or the type of aircraft involved). A famous example of a study that found people were exceedingly bad at recalling where they were when the Challenger exploded. But people rarely misremember the most important event of a memorable day — and I doubt Brian Williams did, either.
We can’t be sure, but it certainly seems like he isn’t being much more forthright than he was the day before last.