The national media are rightly in a lather over the preposterous cornucopia of lies emanating from new GOP Congressman George Santos. But eight years ago this week, the highest-rated news anchor in America — NBC’s Brian Williams — was taken off the air for the wild exaggerations and outright falsehoods he’d been telling for at least a decade.
The unraveling started January 30, 2015, when Williams ended his broadcast with a tribute to an Iraq war veteran who, Williams claimed, helped protect the anchor after the helicopter he was traveling in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. But as the military publication Stars and Stripes reported the following week, the anchor wasn’t anywhere close to the danger: “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.”
Williams apologized on his February 4 newscast, suggesting it was a one-time error: “I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago.” But it turned out that he’d been telling the chopper whopper for years — on Alec Baldwin’s radio show in early March 2013, and again a few weeks later on CBS’s David Letterman show.
“Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in,” he told Letterman on March 26, 2013. “RPG and AK-47s.”
“No kidding,” Letterman interjected.
Video later surfaced of a much-earlier (2005) interview in which Williams told the same story with the weirdly specific claim that the “captain” of his helicopter “took an AK-47 round right through the earlobe, Purple Heart.” The pilot, Chris Simeone, wrote in the New York Post: “I was the pilot in command of the aircraft carrying Brian Williams. I do not have a Purple Heart, and my ears are just fine.”
Other fantastic fables surfaced:
■ He secretly flew with SEAL Team Six to Baghdad: “I happen to have [had] the great honor of flying into Baghdad with them at the start of the [Iraq] war [in 2003],” Brian Williams touted on NBC Nightly News in 2011 after the SEALs successfully killed Osama bin Laden. A former SEAL told the Huffington Post that was “completely preposterous…Those guys don’t take journalists with them on missions.” CNN analyst Peter Bergen scoffed that “his account of being embedded with SEAL Team Six didn’t pass the smell test.”
■ SEAL Team Six sent him a trophy after the bin Laden raid: Williams told David Letterman in January 2013: “About six weeks after the bin Laden raid, I got a white envelope, and in it was a thank you note — unsigned — and attached to it was a piece of the fuselage, the fuselage from the blown-up Black Hawk in that courtyard.” A former SEAL told CNN: “There’s no way in the world that would happen. It would be criminal.”
■ After Katrina, he had dysentery and gangs took over his hotel: “My week, two weeks there, was not helped by the fact that I accidentally ingested some of the flood water. I became very sick with dysentery, our hotel was overrun with gangs,” he claimed in an interview for the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. But the manager of the Ritz Carlton where Williams stayed said her hotel was not overrun with gangs: “None of the guests were in danger of being harmed,” manager Myra DeGersdorff told the Washington Post. “And none were.”
As for the dysentery claim, a former city health director, Dr. Brobson Lutz, told the New Orleans Advocate: “I saw a lot of people with cuts and bruises and such, but I don’t recall a single, solitary case of gastroenteritis during Katrina or in the whole month afterward….My dogs drank it [the flood water], and they didn’t have any problems.”
■ He saw a dead body floating by his hotel: “When you look out of your hotel room window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face down…” Williams told former Disney CEO Michael Eisner in a 2006 interview. But there was little flooding in the French Quarter, and the Ritz Carlton manager told the Washington Post none of her staff had seen bodies. General Russel Honoré, who led the rescue effort in New Orleans after Katrina, was dubious: “If he was a newsman and saw a body floating by his hotel, why didn’t he go grab it? Why didn’t he get somebody and report it?” Honore wondered on CNN’s Reliable Sources, February 8, 2015.
■ He planned to trade his life for Vienna sausage: In a 2006 special on the Katrina anniversary, Williams also claimed: “I carried a case of Vienna sausage — cans of Vienna sausage as collateral in case we had a smash-and-grab carjacking. I was going to offer it to someone in exchange for my life.” If that was really his plan, it doesn’t sound like a very good one.
As the list of lies accumulated, Williams announced on February 7, 2015 that he had “decided to take myself off of my daily broadcast for the next several days.” Three days later, NBC announced Williams would be suspended without pay from NBC Nightly News for six months. He would never return.
A lengthy report in Vanity Fair showed the depths of Williams’ denial: “‘He couldn’t say the words “I lied,”’ recalls one NBC insider. ‘We could not force his mouth to form the words “I lied.” He couldn’t explain what had happened. [He said,] “Did something happen to [my] head? Maybe I had a brain tumor, or something in my head?” He just didn’t know.’”
Another source told the Washington Post’s Paul Fahri that NBC’s investigation had found many lies: “A months-long internal investigation of Brian Williams by NBC News has turned up 11 instances in which the anchorman publicly embellished details of his reporting exploits, according to a person familiar with details of the probe.” But the network never released the report, instead opting to shift Williams to MSNBC.
Whatever their true feelings, the cable networks’ top personalities acted thrilled that Williams would be joining them. Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski gushed, “I think that it’s great for the network.” Prime time host Rachel Maddow told her audience, “I’m really happy that Brian Williams is coming here to MSNBC.”
But they surely knew that Williams had become a national joke. TBS’s Conan O’Brien on February 6 set up a joke video of Williams taking false credit for the Miracle on the Hudson and for writing To Kill a Mockingbird.
But Williams, at least, had one champion. Ex-CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, who himself was ousted after relying on phony documents for a campaign-season hit piece against President George W. Bush, told Politico: “Brian is an honest, decent man, an excellent reporter and anchor — and a brave one. I can attest that — like his predecessor Tom Brokaw — he is a superb pro, and a gutsy one.”
For more examples from our flashback series, which we call the NewsBusters Time Machine, go here.