Poynter Ethicist Says Brian William’s Story Undermines Journalism Credibility

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Brian Williams arrives on the red carpet of the White House Correspondents Dinner on May 9, 2009.
Brian Williams arrives on the red carpet of the White House Correspondents Dinner on May 9, 2009. Brendan Polmer/CNN

NBC News anchor Brian Williams admitted that his story about being in a helicopter hit by an RPG in Iraq in 2003 was false.

Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute and media ethicist, said this lie has the potential to ruin Williams’ career as the Nightly News anchor.

“The reason it’s a big deal is because Brian Williams gets paid to separate out perception from fact,” McBride said. “And if he couldn’t do that in something that he was an eye witness to, then people are going to question his credibility.”

McBride said that people exaggerate stories all the time, but Williams’ career comes with a responsibility to report the truth. She said the embellishment bolstered his brand as a hardcore reporter

Williams has told several different versions of the same war story. In 2008, Williams wrote on the NBC News blog that the helicopter in front of the one he was riding in was hit by an RPG. In 2013, he said in an interview on the David Letterman Show that the helicopter he was riding in was hit.

Williams’ most recent re-telling went on air last week: “The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG,” he said. “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”

After the story aired, Iraq veterans posted on Facebook saying it was false.

It would have been hard for the veterans to start the conversation about what really happened without social media, McBride said.

“Social media has a lot to do with the energy of people coming together to challenge somebody in authority like Brian Williams,” she said.

On Wednesday night, Williams read a 50-second statement apologizing for his story: “It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert,” he said. “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.”

McBride said she thinks the apology was good but anything he says will likely be used against him.

“He has to figure out a way to be frank and honest and not do himself more damage,” she said.

McBride said a lot will be determined in the next few days, depending on whether NBC supports him.

“Up until now he’s been considered super credible and it’s really hard to excuse or explain what happened in this case,” McBride said.

About Chloe Stradinger

Chloe is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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