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Brian Williams and Baghdad Bob

| February 8, 2015

Brian Williams baghdad bob.

Baghdad Bob, a distant colleague of Brian Williams.

In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton lied when she claimed that she’d run across an airport tarmac in Bosnia to avoid sniper fire. It was left up to the comedian Sinbad, who was on the same trip with Clinton, to set her straight when he recalled that the only scary part of the trip was where they could all eat next.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive Ronald Reagan actually told an Israeli prime minister that he’d been among the American troops liberating Auschwitz, when in reality the old liar had spent World War II making movies Stateside for the military’s First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, Calif. Not nearly as big a deal as the lies he told to hide his role in the Iran-Contras, hostages-for-arms dealings that should have ended his presidency, and instead only turned another inveterate liar—Oliver North—into a cult hero.

Lyndon Johnson’s lies could drown Texas. When he became president, Helen Gahagan Douglas, the actress, Congresswoman and one of LBJ’s many mistresses, said she was certain that “we had heard the last frank response to a question from the press.” She knew her liars: she’d lost to Richard Nixon in a Senate race 13 years earlier. As for GWB, all we have to say is WMD.

That politicians lie is not a surprise. For some it’s part of the job description. Reporters and news anchors know that. They report on lies daily. Brian Williams of NBC news reported those of Clinton and Bush. He’d also just become anchor of NBC’s nightly news when he reported on the retirement of Dan Rather from CBS, a retirement hastened by Rather’s blundered report on Bush’s suspicious military service. Rather never lied. He just reported a sloppy story that was never backed up by solid evidence. And soon after that, Rather was in essence fired when CBS refused to renew his contract. Williams reported on that, too.

When reporters lie, they break the industry’s equivalent of a Hippocratic oath. They do great harm—to their organization’s credibility, but also to the people they cover and the audiences who trust them. Williams, it turns out, is an outright liar. He’s been telling a story about being shot down in a helicopter in the early days of the Iraq war. Totally false. Veterans and Stars and Stripes, the military’s newspaper, corrected him. He was forced to apologize.

He lied even in his apology. He claimed he’d been following the helicopter that was struck. He hadn’t. His helicopter was forced to land because of a sand storm. Only later was Williams able to speak to the crew of the copter hit by an RPG round, when that aircraft landed in the same place. He claimed he’d “conflated” some events in a “bungled attempt” to publicly thank a veteran on the PA system at a New York Rangers game (another one of those moments of choreographed pandering the television camera and its distortive effects love so much). That was a lie too because two years ago on Letterman Williams marked the 10th anniversary of that bogus story by going on the show and boasting about it.

Williams originally told his tall tale in a NBC report when Tom Brokaw was in the anchor chair. “A colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies above Iraq,” Brokaw told his audience in that report. “Brian, tell us what you got yourself into.”

“In the end Tom,” Williams replied, “it did give us a glimpse of the war being fought as few have seen it.” He was right in one respect: Williams’s report was part of a series of surreal, fictional, bogus or fabricated stories that poured out of the front in those early weeks, whether it was the way the media invented Jessica Lynch’s bogus heroics or choreographed the felling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Fidros Square as it all led up to the mother of all fictions, Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln. All befitting a war born of a lie. In a way, singling out Williams for contributing to mass chest-thumping at home may seem a bit unfair: his lie was minor compared to the overt and far more consequential lies the nation’s leading news media were peddling on behalf of the Bush regime.

Those early days of the war—as Williams was supposedly behind enemy lines in his shot-down helicopter—American television screens were often filled with the hilarity of Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi information minister who became famous for giving Iraq its own version of the Pentagon’s Five O’Clock Follies in Vietnam as he stood on one corner or another, claiming that American troops were committing suicide, their invasion thwarted even as you could hear the rumble of American advances nearby. But again. Baghdad Bob was only a less sophisticated version of the Bush propaganda machine, which America’s news media happily oiled and broadcast. Embedding was seen as an honor, rather than, as the word explicitly means, being in bed with the government. Williams was an embed when he told his lie, too. Maybe Williams and Baghdad Bob had a beer somewhere along the way.

Brian Williams, telling his lie to Tom Brokaw in 2003.

Brian Williams, telling his lie to Tom Brokaw in 2003.

But there’s a limit to Williams’s hilarity. Getting shot at isn’t the sort of thing you conflate with anything. It either happened or it didn’t. The rest is Hollywood, which TV reporters are often closer to than truth of any depth. Equally troubling, as a pile of analysts have pointed out, is the fact that Williams was accompanied by an NBC crew whose members never said a word to correct him, including his producer, who’s essentially his fact-checker and editor.

Even more troubling is NBC’s reaction: There hasn’t been any. Until the end of the week Williams was in his anchor chair, blathering on in faux-gravity about this and that scandal while NBC did its best to hide the herd of elephants in the studio. Now we’re led to believe that it was Williams who pulled himself off his newscast—not NBC President Deborah Turness who removed him, though the network finally came around to an investigation of the Iraq lie and possibly others in the Williams oeuvre.

When reporters are caught plagiarizing or fabricating stories (different denominations of the same deceptive currency) they’re fired: Stephen Glass of the New Republic, Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post (she won a Pulitzer in 1981 after fabricating a tale about an 8-year-old heroin addict). Willful sloppiness is no excuse, either, as the New York Times’s Judith Miller found out after her fiction-filled WMD coverage (naturally she took refuge for a while at Fox, where fiction’s courtesans always have a home), and of course as Dan Rather found out.

But Williams so far gets to decide his own fate. He’s not like other reporters. He’s media’s equivalent of too big to fail: a $10 million-a-year man still delivering ratings. His memo announcing his brief hiatus left no doubt about his intentions, or his inability to gauge his error: “Upon my return, I will continue my career-long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.” That “career-long” and “effort” no longer belong in a Williams sentence is a minor point. So is the presumption of that upon my return, from the allegedly most self-deprecating man in network news.

But that the anchor of the nation’s leading newscast thinks it’s still up to him to return begs the question: who was in charge at NBC when Williams filed his original fabrication, and who’s in charge now? Politicians and public love to bash media. Often enough the wounds are self-inflicted, but also corrected, we hope. If Williams does return, it’s difficult to imagine how the credibility of NBC News can survive when it’s played in the same sandbox as Baghdad Bob.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here, or follow him on Twitter.

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16 Responses for “Brian Williams and Baghdad Bob”

  1. franco says:

    One thing is for sure, they are all peacocks that need constant attention of the masses.

  2. PeachesMcGee says:

    He’s a rich man, he should just fade away. Douche-baggery at it’s finest.

  3. Steve says:

    Regardless of who actually said it first, “the first casualty of war is truth.” I might add that the first casualty of TV journalists vying for ratings is truth. Pierre, as you point out, the strangest part of Williams’s fiction is that no one among the NBC crew seems to have attempted to set the record straight. Producers and camera people (shooters, in the vernacular) are the real workhorses of any TV news operation, and they are the ones practicing journalism while the “bigfoot” anchor types parachute in to do standups and live talkbacks before retiring to the hotel bar.
    Williams fell victim to his need to be seen as a “war correspondent,” when in fact it was his crew that actually came under fire. Rather’s sin was putting his desire to “get” GWB ahead of basic scrutiny of documents that were clearly fake. Did Rather “bigfoot” the producer who took the fall with him? Hard to say, but it can take a very sturdy individual to stand up to a network star like Rather–or Williams.
    The saddest part of the Williams implosion is that we desperately need tough, objective journalism from the few organizations that can still afford to put folks on the ground in difficult, dangerous places. When the so-called mainstream media blows it, the winners are the yarn-spinners of Fox and nut-right radio, who, to the uninformed, suddenly seem credible by comparison. Very sad.

  4. Lisa Grubba says:

    Excellent editorial. Great historical context and incisive summary of the Williams’ story when many in the media seem to be softballing this one. “Too big to fail” – great analogy. The best part is the editorial brings it home to NBC management, and rightly so. NBC’s had a long line of mistakes recently, including firing several Florida based reporters and editors for manipulating the Zimmerman 911 tape to make it sound different that it was. Actions like that aren’t why the fourth estate gets protection under the consitituion, nor should it be. Sounds like NBC needs an ethical come-to-jesus corporate wide.

  5. Lin says:

    Was it fox that lied?
    Do Rather, Williams, work at fox?
    You had me until the end, always bring in that zinger to the right even when talking about specific nbc people

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Lin, the lies at NBC or CBS make news because they’re the exception. The lies at Fox don’t make news because they’re the rule. Or rather, they are Fox News.

  6. ken says:

    The most harmful practices of the press are distorting facts and/or ignoring stories that don’t support their own political agenda.
    This can result in the election of the wrong people, supporting wrong policies and ultimately ruining our country.
    That is far more harmful then some fool who makes up stories for self-aggrandizement.

  7. Nalla C. says:

    Pierre, the lies at NBC or CBS go on just like they do at FOX, and that’s been the case since at least 2003, with the circuit court decision (declined by SCOTUS) of “Akre/Wilson v. New World Communications”. This was a civil employment law case which found, in essence, that reporters could be flat-out fired, no question, if they turn in a story and are then directed to make changes that “change the thrust of the story” to the point where its meaning is changed or degraded. That’s another way to say LYING.

    Yes, please do look it up. That’s true. It’s always been true, to a point, insofar as many states are “right to work” states–but journalism was looked at differently for the purpose of this case, because it involves public information and public service. That’s as it should be, and upper management shouldn’t be overriding a reporter because one of the subjects of a story don’t appreciate having their lies uncovered for all the world to see. That’s one of the things good investigative journalism is supposed to do–uncover lies, identify the truth, and then report it to their audience.

    You’re halfway there with saying “it’s news if FOX isn’t doing it because they do it all the time.”. But see, here’s the thing about that. IMO, the only reason NBC or CBS or CNN or the New York Times keeps getting away with this stuff is because of the FOX lightning rod, which sucks all the oxygen out of the discussion every single time and snuffs it out. FOX lies so egregiously and so often that all the other networks pale in comparison. But if you believe for one minute that ANY American television network tells us truth, unvarnished by opinion or dumbed-down by “sins of omission” or worse these days, I have to say, I find that shocking, I thought you were much more insightful than that.

    Well, unless you can’t say how you really feel because it would tick off the publisher. THAT, I would understand ;)

  8. Lin says:

    Really Pierre, examples of lies of Fox News?

    Years back you wrote a piece about the illegal immigration at the border — you had my attention but you concluded that it was caused by racism. There are other reasons for not wanting illegals running our border especially the criminals and in these times of terrorism but racism was your answer, seems to be the go-to answer for everything. How about criminal behavior, the unemployment rate of legal Americans, the people that are on line for legally entering the country — lots of reasons to not want open borders.

    The media including journalists and talking heads have a lot of power to include facts in a story and to ignore others which slant the news. Conclusions can be drawn in a story that don’t relate to the facts. Sins of the past can excuse much worse sins of the present,

    Fox makes no bones about its viewpoint but the mainstream pretends to be fair. They are very biased. Why do you and your posters draw fox into every discussion no matter what the subject. Why so intimidated by fox? I watch and read as many sources as I have time for but my republican friends don’t damn me for it, Fox is getting ratings because people are hungry for the other side of the story. There is another side to the narrative.

    When all the Gruber news came out the mainstream media ignored or minimized it — lies by the administration and cover up by the media. It is harder to get away with now with the internet. I hear about things on Fox way before the mainstream press grudgingly come out with it, Fox was so attacked recently about the no-go zones in France — that was reported by the mainstream press also including CNN and the sainted Anderson Cooper, The mainstream press needs to get taken down a peg for their lies not the least of it is Williams,. The most serious sin by the mainstream is their not reporting certain events or reporting 1/2 of it. Reporting what some witnesses said in ferguson for example and not what the others said.

    Keep reporting Pierre even though

  9. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    I wonder if the Author actually knows the definition of a Lie? In it’s simplest form, to make a statement of fact, which you know to be untrue when making it. I’ve had this argument many times about the alleged “Bush Lies” of Iraq. In order to sustain the charge of Bush lying about Iraq, the Author needs evidence that Bush knew there were no WMD in Iraq, and yet made statements of fact to the contrary. That evidence simply does not exist. You can call Bush’s judgment into question, you can call him an idiot, you can call him a war monger, you can call him any number of things, but you cannot credibly call him a liar based on the lack of WMDs found in Iraq. (by the way stockpiles of WMD are still being discovered in Iraq 12 years later).

    Secondly, the Author like so many others, repeats a folklore legend that has never been proven accurate that Regan claimed to an Israeli prime minister that he’d been among the American troops liberating Auschwitz. There is no evidence whatsoever that this ever happened, yet because some news reporter (which we all know to be the profession with impeccable credibility) reported it, and it then got plagiarized for years to come, it’s now just tossed around in pieces like this as if it’s a fact, without any supporting evidence. It used to be the one making the accusation had the burden of proof, but now it would appear once an esteemed member of the media reports it, it’s fact, and up to the victim to prove otherwise.

    Finally, Williams didn’t just lie about the event, his explanation is by definition a lie, he claims he “mis-remembered” the events. There is no question that is a factual assertion he has made, which he absolutely knows to be untrue when he made it. No amount of comparing his lie(s) to that of politicians, either accurately or inaccurately, changes the fact that he has zero credibility.

  10. Jack Howell says:

    As a combat wounded Marine, I certainly take exception to yarn that Williams spun. All of the so called journalists reporting fair and balanced news are full of it! Half the time they can’t even get the facts correct. Put these guys in a real combat situation and watch them pee their pants. Williams is one of many of those who probably could never wear the uniform of the armed forces.

    The biggest issue I am watching is how the main stream reporters are feeding on the body of Williams. It is like he is being attacked by a school of piranha. Loving every minute of it.

  11. Carol Mikola says:

    No mention of the greatest and most prolific liar, BH Obama?

  12. David S. says:

    What about the Bush twins they were no better along with Regan who could not remember what happened five minutes ago.

  13. Lancer says:

    More people are holding the News reader, Williams, accountable for his lies than the current administration!

    0bama’s 23 lies on “if you like you insurance/ doctor you can keep it/ them”. Time Mag’s “lie of the year” 2013!
    0bama’s lies about Benghazi happening because of a youtube video
    Hillary’s lies about coming under sniper fire
    Hillary’s lies about Benghazi because of a youtube video
    Hillary’s lies about Chelsea’s 9/11 friend

    There is no end to what a democrat will say and do to gain more power and control over your liberty. More times than not, perpetuated by the leftist automatons in the media.

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