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Brian Williams Criticized For Exaggerated Iraq Story


NBC News anchor Brian Williams was not in a helicopter brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade - that much we know. Last night, Williams retracted and apologized for a story that he told last week about reporting in Iraq in 2003. But many journalists contend it did not clarify how he incorrectly recounted his own experiences. And some critics even say he lied. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports Williams's shifting tales have led to a self-inflicted wound.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Here's what Sam Roberts has to say about Brian Williams, who's the most-watched TV news anchor in America.

SAM ROBERTS: The only thing that a person like that has going for him is credibility and trust, and his credibility is now shot.

FOLKENFLIK: Sam Roberts is former national editor and foreign editor for CBS News. And he worked as a producer for Walter Cronkite's evening news show for 14 years. Back in March, 2003, Brian Williams was a network star on the rise. His predecessor, Tom Brokaw, presented him to viewers of a "Dateline" NBC special in almost heroic terms.


TOM BROKAW: For about 48 hours, we did not see NBC's Brian Williams and that's because he and NBC news analyst General Wayne Downing were hunkered down in the Iraqi desert during a U.S. Army helicopter mission that suddenly turned dangerous.

FOLKENFLIK: Brokaw said that the NBC crew and the soldiers they tagged along with had survived a harrowing ordeal and then Williams picked up the story.


BRIAN WILLIAMS: Our lead chopper pilot remembers seeing a pickup truck driver stop and wave while another man pulled back a tarp, stood up in the back of the truck and it fired an RPG - a rocket-propelled grenade.

FOLKENFLIK: Williams explicitly said the RPG had hit the Chinook ahead of him, not the one in which he was traveling.


WILLIAMS: We set down hard and fast. We got out of the back ramp of that chopper and General Downing said we're in about the most dangerous place in the world right now, gentlemen.

FOLKENFLIK: Williams reported the pilots from the plane hit by the RPG were too shaken to speak on camera. Again, that's all from 2003. In 2005, according to the Los Angeles Times, Williams said his helicopter was shot at. In 2008, Williams wrote in a post that a helicopter in front of his was knocked down by enemy fire. In March 2013, Williams publicly described twice what had happened a decade before.


WILLIAMS: And I've done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe. But I...

ALEC BALDWIN: Did you think you would die?

WILLIAMS: Briefly.

FOLKENFLIK: That was on WNYC Radio with Alec Baldwin. Williams also appeared on the "Late Show" with David Letterman, a favorite comedic venue. He spoke once again of the same episode.


WILLIAMS: We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates, so the third infantry could cross on them. Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire including the one I was in.



FOLKENFLIK: Note Williams's reliance on the word we - it's ambiguous there about which aircraft took on which fire. Then in a two-minute-long story on "NBC Nightly News" last Friday, Williams celebrated the command sergeant major who kept his crew safe - but the anchor appeared prominently throughout the story - the two men cheered by fans at a professional hockey game. And in that report Williams erased the last membrane separating what happened to the two helicopters.


WILLIAMS: The helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.

FOLKENFLIK: Online outrage from soldiers led to Williams's contrite apology and retraction last night, but some questions remain. The pilot of the Chinook in which Williams was flying told CNN that Iraqis did fire on his helicopter with small arms. And that they closely followed the chopper forced down by the RPG, but the Stars & Stripes reporter who broke open the story tells NPR he has five soldiers from both helicopters who say there was no such fire and the choppers were an hour apart. Former CBS News executive Sam Roberts says the entire profession has taken hit.

ROBERTS: The idea that, you know, oh, you guys just make it up. See, I told you. Look what Brian Williams did. And we're going to hear that over and over again from people who are skeptical about the media.

FOLKENFLIK: NBC News has no comment, and Williams is back as anchor tonight for the network's evening broadcast. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.