The Washington Post is doing unto Brian Williams's career what it did unto Rolling Stone's bogus reporting on an alleged University of Virginia gang-rape: fact-checking it into ribbons. As the rest of the media world does what NBC should have done a dozen years ago, a picture is emerging of a serial humble-bragger, constantly padding his resume by exaggerating the danger of his work while surfing on the heroism of others. It's an embarrassment to the profession, and a cautionary tale for news consumers.
We're already far afield from the original helicopter-under-fire-over-Iraq fabrication that sent the NBC anchor's reputation into a tailspin (though as press thinker Jay Rosen notes, while surveying the latest developments on that piece of the story, "the 'conflation' that Brian Williams described in his apology last week began with the first report in 2003, and built from there. Other NBC people were involved from the beginning").
Now the Post is two-fisting two other Williams shaggy-dog stories: another helicopter-under-fire tale, this time from Hezbollah over Israel in 2006; and a set of lurid post-facto Hurricane Katrina claims about the desperate conditions at the, uh, Ritz-Carlton.
On the Hezbollah front, Williams's original report for NBC stated that rockets had landed 1,500 feet below the helicopter he was flying in some 30 seconds prior to its arrival in that airspace, and that he could see another rocket launch into Israel from six miles away. Within months, this became a claim on The Daily Show that "rockets" were "passing underneath us, 1,500 feet beneath us." By this 2007 interview, "There were Katyusha rockets passing just beneath the helicopter I was riding in."
On Katrina, a whole suite of Williams claims is being dissected:
Among them: The one he told about witnessing a suicide at the Superdome. Or the one he told about watching a body float past the Ritz-Carlton, perched at the edge of an otherwise dry French Quarter. Or the one about the dysentery he said he got. And, finally, the story he told about the Ritz-Carlton gangs. Three separate individuals told reporters no gangs infiltrated the Ritz-Carlton.
The Post spends much of its energy investigating the mostly vaporware claims about the hotel being "overrun with gangs." But perhaps as damning, and certainly very telling, is the faux-heroism and purple prose with which Williams adorns his serial humble-bragging. The bolding here is mine:
The newsman made it back to the Ritz. Sickness was coming on hot. He was "fading in and out," he said. "Somebody left me on the stairway of the Ritz-Carlton in the dark on a mattress." Williams said he was delirious with fever and unable to eat.
But dangers beyond dysentery stalked the hotel. That same day, [Douglas] Brinkley wrote, "armed gangs had broken into the 527-room hotel, brandishing guns and terrorizing guests." He said he laid "eight or ten steps from the exit door. They were going to lock in or down the Ritz, shut it to keep the gangs out. Nobody was allowed out. No exceptions."
Somebody tried to push an IV on him, which Brinkley said he was "desperately in need of," but nobly declined. "There were so many ill people in line who needed it more than me," he said. "My conscience wouldn't have felt right if I had tried to pull rank. But I was in pure hell. I had no medicine, nothing."
He eventually made a break for it, "wading" out into what is described as "two feet of floodwater, barely able to stand." In front of the hotel, a violent confrontation loomed. "A gang was waiting on the streetcar tracks in front of the Ritz, ready go 'smash and grab,' as Williams put it, to take the vehicle." Some Louisiana National Guardsmen then materialized to confront the marauders and ensure the "NBC trio didn't get their escape vehicle hijacked. 'They aimed weapons at the men on the street,' Williams recalled. 'Then we were on our own.'" Somehow, Williams said he soldiered on, making all of his broadcasts.
There's a disturbing and/or comical pattern to all these stories, including Williams's claims to have had a .38 caliber pistol pointed threateningly at his face while selling Christmas trees as a teenager in suburban New Jersey, and even his heartwarming tale of saving a puppy or two as a volunteer firefighter. The storytelling is thick with insider jargon to let you know that this millionaire anchor knows how our heroic everymen do their work (helicopters are always "birds," perps are gonna do the ol' "smash and grab," etc.). And the depictions are positively drenched with totally unconvincing protestations that it's really not about him, it's about our heroes, who he just happened to be right next to, during heroic moments.
Consider the sub-Hemingway prose in this Williams Esquire piece:
I was the only guy in the firehouse back in Jersey reading The New York Times. I won't tell you what the other publications in the back room were. About the last thing you're going to tell your buddy on Engine 210 is "You know, I'm going to try to be a network-television journalist someday." […]
All I have in common with the guys in that picture behind us is I've put on the gear. I would never rank myself any higher. […]
I would never, ever mention my name in the same sentence with a member of the FDNY.
As Jay Rosen has observed, these aren't one-off cases of accidental resume-padding; they have been pushcast by Williams and NBC as essential selling points to the highest-rated evening newscast on television. Consider that this false bravado is part of the standard Williams bio any time he delivers one of his minimum-$40,000 speeches:
He was the first NBC News correspondent to reach Baghdad during the 2003 war in Iraq, and was part of a U.S. Army helicopter mission that was forced down by enemy fire south of Najaf. He nonetheless has returned to Iraq several times, in addition to recent travels to Afghanistan and Iran.
You can find that now-discredited passage at the National Association of Broadcasters, the Pritzker Military Library, American Society of Magazine Editors, Peabody Awards, The Leary Firefighters Foundation, and on and on.
Why weren't Williams's own accomplishments sufficient for his sense of self-regard and NBC's need for promotional material? I suspect there will be a lot of people lying on that particular couch. For now, the case is a reminder of two cautionary principles: Never trust a one-tenth-of-one-percenter who expends that much energy claiming to be just one of the guys, and always remember that the reporter telling the loudest war stories at the bar is invariably the one most full of shit.