Brian Williams’ future at NBC News may hinge on just how many other examples of exaggerations and fibs are found.
The network’s internal fact-checking investigation is “nowhere near done,” a senior NBC source said Thursday.
It has widened beyond just Williams’ initial errors about a 2003 Iraq War mission to include other possible misstatements, but the network has not commented on any particular ones.
When he apologized last week for his on-air error about the Iraq mission, he chalked it up to innocent “misremembering.” But others have implied something more malicious.
On Thursday The Huffington Post identified questions about Williams’ claims of flying into Baghdad with SEAL Team 6 and about “war memorabilia the anchor claims to have received as gifts, including a Navy SEAL’s knife and a piece of the helicopter from the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.”
CNN analyst Peter Bergen said on “Anderson Cooper 360” that he was told by sources in the Seal community that it would be impossible for Williams to have ever traveled with Seal Team 6.
“We do not embed journalists with any elements of that unit … bottom line — no,” one Special Operations Command official said.
In the case of the memorabilia that Williams says he received from “his friends” in the Seal community: “that doesn’t pass any sniff test,” another Seal officer told Bergen.
A spokeswoman for NBC News declined to comment.
Williams’ exaggerations about Iraq and subsequent questions about his accounts of Hurricane Katrina have triggered a full-blown crisis of confidence inside NBC News. (The scrutiny about Katrina is particularly significant.) Williams was suspended on Tuesday for six months without pay, and may never return to his “NBC Nightly News” anchor chair.
The suspension had an ominous feel to it — a sense, expressed by many media analysts, that there are more examples out there of the anchor embellishing the truth.
“We have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field,” NBC News president Deborah Turness said in announcing the suspension.
Media accounts have concentrated more on Williams’ misstatements than the apparent lack of executive oversight. (His appearances on late-night shows, for example, were set up by public relations people and supported by NBC management.)
Meanwhile, Williams — who is bound by the terms of his contract — isn’t allowed to speak without the network’s approval, and the network isn’t giving him that approval right now.
As NBC’s fact-checking continues, two accounts from Williams’ younger days could also invite scrutiny.
As a reporter for WCBS-TV in New York in 1989, Williams traveled to Berlin to cover the demolition of the Berlin Wall. The assignment has become an omnipresent line in his various biographies, and Williams himself has identified it as a career highlight.
“I’ve been so fortunate,” he said during a 2008 forum at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. “I was at the Brandenburg Gate the night the wall came down.”
Williams did indeed witness some of the wall’s physical removal. But “the night the wall came down” is widely recognized as November 9, 1989, an iconic date with particular significance to Williams’ “Nightly News” predecessor Tom Brokaw.
Brokaw was famously the only American anchorman to report live from the scene on that historic day, an accomplishment that NBC News has proudly trumpeted for years. It was a defining moment for Brokaw.
And Williams has, to be sure, consistently credited Brokaw and NBC for having a jump on the story. In a 2004 interview, Williams said he “arrived at the Berlin Wall a day after — more like 12 hours after — Tom Brokaw did.”
“But I got there, and I have my own piece of the wall, my own piece of that memory that I’ll always hold tight to,” he added.
Other times, Williams has arguably conflated his experience with that of Brokaw’s.
“Here’s a fact: 25 years ago tonight, Tom Brokaw and I were at the Berlin Wall,” Williams said at a gala held on November 8, 2014.
At the same event, where Brokaw was honored by the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation, Williams cracked that he was “very pissed off ’cause Tom had arrived [in Berlin] first” while “everyone else in journalism” was racing to catch a flight from New York to Berlin.
“So by the second night of the story, we were all there,” Williams added.
An NBC News source in a position to know confirmed to CNNMoney that “Brian arrived the day after the wall came down.”
In public settings, Williams has also discussed another brush with history that occurred a decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall. As a student at Catholic University, Williams was at the school when Pope John Paul II spoke at the Washington, D.C. campus in 1979. The anchor’s account of the papal visit has varied over the years.
In 2002, Williams was quoted as saying that he chipped in with the school’s preparations as an employee in the campus public relations office.
“I was there during the visit of the pope,” Williams said.
If he had any interaction with the pope, Williams didn’t mention it then. But that changed in 2004, a year before the death of Pope John Paul II. While delivering the commencement address at Catholic University that year, Williams said the “highlight” of his time at the school “was in this very doorway, shaking hands with the Holy Father during his visit to this campus.”
After reporting the news of the pope’s death in 2005, Williams said on-air that he was “thinking back to the first time I met him at Catholic University, I guess it’s 25 years ago now.”
Days later, Williams provided a more colorful version of his meeting.
“I have to begin with a beautiful day in 1979,” Williams said in an interview published by NBC News. “I was a student at Catholic University, and over the course of two hours, chatted up a Secret Service agent who spilled like a cup of coffee and told me that the pope would be coming our way, straight up the steps of a side door at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I positioned myself and held out my hand and said, ‘Welcome to Catholic University, Holy Father.’ And he embraced my hand with both of his, made the sign of the cross, and said a blessing to me.”
The holes in these accounts may seem small. Up until a week ago, most people wouldn’t have given them a second thought. That they’re even getting brought up speaks to the depth of this calamity.
Representatives for NBC News repeatedly declined to comment on the stories.
The head of NBC’s in-house investigation is Richard Esposito, the senior executive producer of the news division’s investigative unit. The general counsel of NBC’s parent company, NBCUniversal, is also involved.
Many media critics have raised eyebrows about NBC’s decision to appoint one of its own investigative producers, rather than an outsider, to look into Williams’ claims.
At one point early in the process, Esposito provided his bosses with the names of several other people who could conduct an external investigation, according to two people with knowledge of the discussions.
An NBC executive, speaking anonymously, said these names were meant to be recommendations in case the probe expanded and required additional resources.
On Thursday another NBC source said a third-party investigator may, in fact, become involved, but that no final decisions have been made.
Brian Stelter contributed reporting.