With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale

Jonathan Mahler, Ravi Somaiya and Emily Steel

For years, Brian Williams had been telling a story that wasn't true. On Wednesday night, he took to his anchor chair on "NBC Nightly News" to apologize for misleading the public.

On Thursday, his real problems started.

A host of military veterans and pundits came forward on television and social media, challenging Mr. Williams's assertion that he had simply made a mistake when he spoke, on several occasions, about having been in a United States military helicopter forced down by enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. Some went so far as to call for his resignation.

In his apology, Mr. Williams said that he had been on a different helicopter, behind the one that had sustained fire, and that he had inadvertently "conflated" the two. The explanation earned him not only widespread criticism on radio and TV talk shows, but widespread ridicule on Twitter, under the hashtag "#BrianWilliamsMisremembers."

A Fox News analyst, Howard Kurtz, said, "The admission raises serious questions about his credibility in a business that values that quality above all else." On CNN's "New Day," the host Chris Cuomo said that attributing the lie to "the fog of war" wasn't acceptable and the Internet would "eat him alive." Rem Rieder, a USA Today media columnist, wrote, "It's hard to see how Williams gets past this, and how he survives as the face of NBC News."

It's unclear at this point whether Mr. Williams will feel compelled to speak again to the issue. What is clear is that the trustworthiness of one of America's best-known and most revered TV journalists has been damaged, and that the moral authority of the nightly network news anchor, already diminished in the modern media era, has been dealt another blow.

Mr. Williams first reported on the episode when it happened in 2003, though the current controversy erupted last week after he spoke about it on air during a tribute to a retired soldier. Some veterans took to Facebook to complain, and a reporter at the military newspaper Stars and Stripes picked up the thread.

In fact, some of the soldiers present in Iraq that day had been quietly fuming about Mr. Williams's reporting for years, and had even tried to alert the news media to it earlier. Joe Summerlin, who was on the helicopter that was forced down, said in an interview that he and some of his fellow crew watched Mr. Williams's initial story and were angered by his characterization of the events.

The account that Mr. Williams told of the episode evolved over the years, with his personal involvement gradually growing more perilous. In a 2003 segment on NBC that described it as "a close call in the skies over Iraq," Mr. Williams said, "the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky."

In 2013, Mr. Williams told David Letterman that he had actually been on the helicopter that got shot down, adding that a crew member had been injured and received a medal. "We figured out how to land safely," he said, "we landed very quickly and hard. We were stuck, four birds in the desert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans." And on the "Nightly News" last week, he described "a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an R.P.G.," a reference to a rocket-propelled grenade.

Mr. Summerlin said that Mr. Williams's helicopter was part of a different mission and at least 30 minutes behind theirs. His account is supported by two of the pilots of Mr. Williams's own helicopter, Christopher Simeone and Allan Kelly, who said in an interview that they did not recall their convoy of helicopters coming under fire. After the initial piece aired on NBC in 2003, Mr. Summerlin and his crew went looking for reporters on their base in Kuwait to tell them about the inaccuracies in Mr. Williams's reporting. Instead, they wound up leaving notes in several news vans encouraging them to get in touch. Years later, they were still frustrated by Mr. Williams's recounting.

"When he was on the air on the Letterman show, I was going crazy," Mr. Simeone said. "I was thinking 'This guy is such a liar and everyone believes it.' "

On Thursday, yet another pilot, Rich Krell, gave a different account, telling CNN that he had in fact flown Mr. Williams, and their helicopter had come under attack. Mr. Simeone and Mr. Kelly strongly disputed Mr. Krell's account.

NBC has not commented on the controversy, either to support Mr. Williams or to clarify the details of the episode, nor did it make him available for comment. It's also not clear if other people at NBC were aware that Mr. Williams's version of the events was inaccurate.

It's not unprecedented for a public figure to exaggerate his or her experiences, especially when it comes to military conflict. In 2008, then presidential candidate Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton acknowledged that she had misspoken when she described having to run across a tarmac to avoid sniper fire after landing in Bosnia as first lady in 1996. While running for Senate in 2010, Connecticut's attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, falsely claimed to have served in Vietnam.

But for a journalist — and in particular, an anchor — to do so has struck many people in the news industry as a very different sort of offense. While most were unwilling to publicly criticize a colleague, few were persuaded by Mr. Williams's explanation.

"My inbox is filled today with producers who went to Iraq with me, to Afghanistan with me, to Haiti with me, all kind of wondering how you could mess this up," said Aaron Brown, a former anchor for CNN. "I have no answer for that. I will tell you that getting shot at is not something you forget."

Mr. Williams just extended his contract with NBC in December, with the terms reported to be as much as $10 million a year for five years. At the time, Deborah Turness, the president of NBC News, called him one of "the most trusted journalists of our time."

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The anchor and managing editor of "NBC Nightly News" since 2004, Mr. Williams succeeded his mentor, Tom Brokaw. His broadcast has long been considered a block of stability for the network. On Tuesday, "NBC Nightly News" issued a news release announcing that it was the top evening newscast in total viewers for January for the second month in a row.

Mr. Williams is a familiar presence outside the anchor chair, too. He has hosted "Saturday Night Live," and appeared frequently on late-night TV shows like "The Daily Show" and "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon," assuming a kind of comedic persona that stands in sharp contrast to his identity as a newsman.

Other prominent TV journalists have made big mistakes. Dan Rather of CBS relied on bogus documents for a 2004 story questioning President Bush's National Guard record. In 2013, Lara Logan took a leave of absence from "60 Minutes" for a flawed story about an attack on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya.

This is a different situation, though. If it turns out that Mr. Williams intentionally misled the public, it will be an instance not of careless or irresponsible reporting, but of a journalist lying for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

Ever since the days of Walter Cronkite and Vietnam, network anchors have traveled frequently to war zones to get closer to the action and enhance their credibility as reporters. NBC's ties to the military are especially strong, in part because of Mr. Brokaw, who wrote "The Greatest Generation," a best-selling book describing the Americans who fought in World War II. Mr. Brokaw reported frequently on soldiers and veterans, and Mr. Williams kept up the tradition when he took over.

While the audience for the nightly news broadcasts has been in decline for years, it's still significant. Season to date, NBC has averaged 8.95 million total viewers for its evening news broadcast, compared to 8.11 million for ABC and 6.88 million for CBS.

For Ms. Turness, who joined NBC in 2013, the controversy represents yet another unwelcome challenge. She was already facing the unenviable task of keeping the nightly news broadcast relevant in the era of smartphones, as well as turmoil at the "Today" morning show.

Now she is dealing with a scandal involving one of her biggest stars, whose attempt to quell a budding fiasco has only worsened it, spawning — among other things — jokes that Mr. Williams might otherwise have appreciated.

"Brian Williams will be fine," Andy Levy, a Fox News commentator, wrote on Twitter. "If he can survive being hit by an R.P.G., he can survive this."