For more than a decade he told grand tales about riding in an Army helicopter over occupied Baghdad when it was struck and forced to land by a rocket-propelled grenade. But earlier this week, after the helicopter’s crew members told “Stars & Stripes” that Williams was in a completely different aircraft that was not struck by anything, he admitted his story was a complete fabrication.
Which, of course, brings everything else Williams has ever told us into question. Could we be watching the slow implosion of the popular newsman’s 34-year career? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say yes.
In a statement he gave “Stars & Stripes” on Feb. 4, Williams wrote off the helicopter memory as a simple mistake. “I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” he said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
A few hours later, he apologized in a lengthy Facebook comment, noting that he was in an aircraft behind the plane which took the hit in the tail housing. But that’s not exactly accurate either, according to multiple crew members riding with Williams. In fact, the aircraft carrying him was not part of, or even near, the trio of helicopters that took fire on the same day in March 2003. Williams’ Chinook was forced to land that day, but only due to a sandstorm—not enemy fire.
Joe Summerlin, who was on the helicopter that was forced down, said in an interview that he and some of his fellow crew watched Williams’ initial story and were angered by his characterization of the events. Summerlin’s account is supported by two of the pilots of Williams’ own helicopter, Christopher Simeone and Allan Kelly, who said in an interview that they did not recall their convoy of helicopters coming under fire.
After the initial piece aired on NBC in 2003, Mr. Summerlin and his crew went looking for reporters on their base in Kuwait to tell them about the inaccuracies in Williams’ reporting. Instead, they wound up leaving notes in several news vans encouraging them to get in touch.
Years later, they were still frustrated by Williams’ tale. “When he was on the air on the Letterman show, I was going crazy,” Simeone said. “I was thinking ‘This guy is such a liar and everyone believes it.’”
What happens from here is anyone’s guess, but I can’t imagine that Williams will stay in the anchor chair for long. Everything he says is in question now. including his coverage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, elements of which have now been called into question.
Whether he was about to be fired or not isn’t known, but today, NBC News staff received a message from Williams announcing his suspension as anchor of NBC Nightly News for “the next several days”:
In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions.
As Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News, I have decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days, and Lester Holt has kindly agreed to sit in for me to allow us to adequately deal with this issue. Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.
Williams’ (self-imposed?) exile follows reports from multiple sources on Friday that NBC News has begun an internal fact-checking investigation into his past work.
What do you think? Should Williams be fired? Suspended for a period of time? Moved to a different division of the NBC News? Sound off in the comments below.