FEBRUARY 2015 - Brian Williams Caught in Lies

Photo Caption and Credit: Brian Williams behind the scenes of the NBC Nightly News Set in London for the 2012 Summer Olympics with the London Bridge in the background. (Courtesy of Anthony Quintano/Wikimedia Commons)

By: Lilian Flaherty

On Feb. 4, 2015, National Broadcasting Channel (NBC) News’ journalist Brian Williams apologized on-air for inaccurately describing a “near-death” reporting trip he took to Iraq in 2003. Williams previously claimed he was on board a Chinook helicopter that required an emergency landing after being shot at by RPG weapons. Rather, Williams was traveling in a separate helicopter behind the one that was shot at and later dramatized the events he “experienced.” Williams said during an episode of NBC Nightly News, “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 the following aircraft” (Gold & Byers, 2015). After a celebratory recognition of William’s bravery at a hockey game at Madison Square Garden, the truth was brought to the surface by Army veterans aboard the shot-down aircraft. They wrote on Facebook that neither Williams nor his crew were present at the occurrence. In response to Williams admitting to his wrongdoings, NBC suspended him for six months. 

Williams’ failure to tell the truth to NBC audiences led to broader questions about the “management and the credibility of NBC’s news operations” (Steel, 2015). Being caught in the lie damaged the credibility of the most-watched news anchor along with that of NBC News. After his fabrication was revealed, other stories Williams had assembled were investigated for false reporting. Questions increased about his reported stories, ranging “from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, on the Israeli war with Hezbollah in 2006, and an anecdote about being robbed at gunpoint while selling Christmas trees in the 1970s,” according to The Guardian (McCarthy, 2015). His reporting on Hurricane Katrina, for example, was considered to have been exaggerated, and he received much criticism for his observations of seeing a body floating face-down outside his hotel (McCarthy, 2015).

In response to Williams’ deception concerning the plane landing, an article by Avondale College suggests the possibility that he could have misremembered the events due to the psychological trauma of being nearby (Joseph & Rickett, 2017). However, the college report indicates that this theory was not likely and that the events were intended to “spearhead the rise in ratings” (Joseph & Rickett, 2017, p. 35). When the disinformation reported by Williams was revealed, it, in fact, caused a harsh decline of viewers of NBC News. One week after the leak, “ABC beat NBC by 109,000 viewers,” stated in an article by Deadline (de Moraes, 2015).

The Williams incident is a prime example of how false “facts” affect a news outlet’s credibility. Both his and NBC’s images suffered, losing their reputations as truthful and reliable news sources, and forcing viewers to question what to believe. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, followed by loyalty to the citizens – news outlets must follow these promises to ensure trust and accountability from the people.

Works Cited: 
De Moraes, L. (2015, February 13). ‘NBC Nightly News’ Tumbles In Ratings With Brian Williams’ Suspension. Deadline. https://deadline.com/2015/02/brian-williams-nbc-nightly-news-ratings-fall-suspension-1201373042/. 
Gold, H., & Byers, D. (2015, February 4). Brian Williams apologizes for false Iraq story. POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2015/02/brian-williams-apologizes-for-false-iraq-story-202130. 
Joseph, S., & Rickett, C. (2017). Embedding, Embellishing and Embarrassing: Brian Williams ‘Misremembers’ but Social Media Reminds Him. Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, 14(1), 32–41. https://research.avondale.edu.au/arts_papers/54/. 
McCarthy, T. (2015, February 6). Brian Williams’ reports on Katrina called into question by New Orleans residents. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/06/brian-williams-hurricane-katrina-new-orleans-residents. 
Steel, E. (2015, February 6). Brian Williams Faces ‘Fact-Checking’ Inquiry at NBC. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/07/business/media/brian-williams-helicopter-incident-in-iraq.html.