Misremembering. It can happen to anyone, like that time I made a Korean woman strangle a chicken, but it turned out it was a baby. Pobody’s nerfect. NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams is hoping that’s the attitude the public takes toward his own “bungled” recollection of his chopper being forced to land after it was hit by an RPG (Rocket-propelled grenade) during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Williams summarized the tale last week, in a Nightly News segment marking the 12th anniversary of the event, and his reunion with a soldier who had protected Williams and his crew while they were in Iraq:
That segment caught the attention of soldiers who were in the helicopters that were attacked, and who wanted to set the record straight. On Wednesday evening, spurred by reporting in Stars and Stripes, Williams issued the following apology:
“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.”
Now, before you judge the efficacy of Williams’ apology, it’s important to note that even it doesn’t quite match up with Stars and Stripes’ reporting, at least not in spirit:
Williams and his camera crew were actually aboard a Chinook in a formation that was about an hour behind the three helicopters that came under fire, according to crew member interviews.
That Chinook took no fire and landed later beside the damaged helicopter due to an impending sandstorm from the Iraqi desert, according to Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the aircraft that carried the journalists.
So, yes, technically, Williams was on a “following” aircraft (temporally speaking), and they “all” did land after the ground fire incident, just an hour apart from each other. And it’s not as though this was the first time Williams had misremembered the story. Two years ago, he was on The Late Show with David Letterman, and gave a very detailed account:
The revelation and apology has led to a fierce and immediate backlash that has divided itself on amusingly partisan lines. Conservatives have taken the occasion to take shots at a mainstream media figure they already had an interest in undermining, while liberals have used it to lambaste Williams and others for their hopelessly compromised coverage of that conflict, particularly in its early days. The story has been getting quite a bit of coverage on TV news, with predictable criticisms of the apology, and the odd demand for resignation here or there.
So far, the apology appears to be the end of it for NBC News, but the incident poses a serious credibility problem for Williams, and it remains to be seen if he can weather it. The good news for Williams is that it is possible to come through something like this, as Hillary Clinton did in 2008 under remarkably similar circumstances. While running for president, then-Senator Clinton got caught up in her own recollections of a rough landing in war-torn Bosnia, followed by a mad dash away from sniper fire.
At first, her campaign tried a soft walkback, insisting that there were snipers that forced them to cancel, or at least hurry up, the landing ceremony. Then, CBS News released video of Hillary being greeted on the tarmac by an apparently sniper-proof little girl:
It was all very embarrassing, but Clinton survived, and will go on to be the first woman president, and her campaign’s response didn’t have a tenth the charm of Brian Williams. That’s his biggest asset, and the one that will save him, of anything can: people like him. More than that, they don’t like the people who will be shrieking the loudest against him. Let’s also not forget that America is currently in cinematic love with a guy who claimed to have shot looters in post-Katrina New Orleans from the roof of the Superdome.
On the other hand, remembering stuff that happens is his one job, so whatever criticism Williams takes over this, he certainly deserves. Both he and Hillary Clinton were, undeniably, placed in dangerous situations that could heighten the anxiety and color the recollection of any human being, but for most human beings, “cool under fire” isn’t their entire job.