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Does Brian Williams Need Forgiveness?

Revisiting the defining moment of the longtime NBC News anchor's career.

NBC News/ YouTube

On Tuesday, MSNBC anchor Brian Williams announced that he would be leaving NBC News, where he built a towering career as the network’s flagship anchor and talk show host, barring a short stint of suspension in 2015 after being caught lying about his experiences covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Williams is only 62 and thus almost certainly headed for something even easier and more lucrative than his prior duties at NBC News, and his departure from the network is only something to lament if your only access to mass media is a bent over-the-air TV antenna that doesn’t get a good signal from ABC, CBS, Fox or PBS. But as Williams steps down from the network that made, unmade, and remade him, it’s worth looking back at the most defining moment of his career: lying about being in a helicopter that was shot down during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Earlier today, I listened to perhaps the most comprehensive defense of Williams’ actions, a 40-minute episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast Revisionist History, which like most of Gladwell’s work, looks at popular figures and events in history through the lens of thoughtful-sounding and thinly-sourced social science. The episode, titled “Free Brian Williams,” attributes the anchor’s consistent and well-documented lying about a flight he took while on a press embed with U.S. troops in 2003 to something Gladwell calls “time slice error.” The argument, overall, is that when exposed to trauma (Gladwell uses a friend’s recollection of 9/11 to support this), the human brain gets wonky with details and messes up stuff.

Like most of Gladwell’s work, this makes a lot of sense on the surface. And also like most of Gladwell, it unravels when examined with the tiniest bit of scrutiny.

Erik Wemple at the Post has a good rundown of how this story has changed—the little details of rocket-propelled grenade versus small arms fire and which helicopter was hit, why his helicopter was forced to go down, and other reporting from the time shows that Williams’ story changed multiple times over the years (The Times did a whole video on his different versions). This is consistent with Gladwell’s theory of brain farts while recollecting a traumatic event, but also consistent with someone regularly emphasizing their proximity to danger in order to look cool.

This is something, funnily enough, that I know a bit about!

I have a couple of good war stories. As I’ve sort of mentioned on this blog before, for a short period of time in 2015 I worked as a freelance reporter covering the war in Eastern Ukraine, where I went on a handful of front-line embeds with Ukrainian government troops and regularly traveled around the disputed region of the country. One of my favorite stories to tell is about the process of taking a shit while on the front lines, which as you can imagine is a less relaxing activity than it is at home.

At the outpost I was embedded at for a week in November of 2015, the only real shitter was an above-ground outhouse situated at ground level, unprotected by the complex trench and bunker network where most soldiers lived and stood guard. When you had to take a crap, you went into the outhouse and did your business as quick as possible, made nervous by the fact that the outhouse itself was pocked by several conspicuously bullet-sized holes.

During the day, when fighting was rare, this wasn’t too bad. But one night, in the middle of a prolonged firefight happening adjacent to our position (maybe 400 meters from the outhouse, but not involving the unit I was with directly), one of my colleagues felt the call. Urgently.

The story is longer—involving him debating whether to risk catching a ricochet from the nearby firefight while in the exposed outhouse or dig a hole in some unused portion of the trench and shit in shame but relative safety (my advice)—but it culminates in a great image that I often pantomime of him waddling back to cover from the outhouse while holding his ballistic helmet on with one hand and his pants up with the other. He was fine, but I never got a clear answer on how well he wiped.

It’s been half a decade since that moment, and I’m sure my retelling of the story has changed a bit here and there. But a couple details, I promise you, will never change. The story would undoubtedly be better if it were me that had to take the shit, and not my colleague, and it almost certainly would be better if it were our position that was under direct fire. As it was, we were mostly just sitting in lawn chairs smoking cigarettes and listening to missed shots and ricochets whizz 10 feet over our heads, and I don’t think any of the soldiers in the unit we were with fired their weapon that night. I only pooped once during the entire embed. As I was experiencing these things as a reporter, these small details are important to me — they’re ones we made sure to get right in our pieces about the war.

I don’t doubt that Williams was shaken up by his experience, and I don’t doubt that trauma can warp our memories of events until they are almost completely devoid of the truth. But the point of war reporting, which Williams was ostensibly there to do, is to counteract this phenomenon and provide a fair retelling of how armed conflict affects the people involved in it, either directly or collaterally. Which helicopter was hit and what it was hit with are immediate, verifiable details that Williams, as a reporter, would be responsible for figuring out — and indeed, you can see that he made an attempt to do so, as the flight mechanic who first claimed he wasn’t on the damaged aircraft noted: “I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened.” I’d be willing to bet that Williams had the facts written down somewhere that day in 2003, but somehow, they’re not what comes through in his retelling of the event.

There’s a reason that the outhouse anecdote doesn’t appear in any piece I wrote or contributed to from my time in Ukraine. That’s because to me, it’s a war story. It’s about me (and my colleague), who were visitors to that war, and our entire purpose for being there was to explain what it was like for other people. The problem is that some news anchors like Williams go to war looking for their own stories, not for others — which is why none of us should be surprised when what they come out with is a far cry from anything resembling “reporting.” Williams leaves behind a long legacy at NBC, but it’s telling that the least reliable source he ever put on-air was himself.