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How bad is Brian Williams' Iraq story fabrication?

Brian Williams at the Cantor Fitzgerald Charity Day

Brian Williams at the Cantor Fitzgerald Charity Day event in New York City. Credit: AP / Starpix, Andrew Toth

So, just how bad is this for Brian Williams, who on Wednesday was forced to recant an oft-told story, that he was aboard a Chinook helicopter in the early days of the Iraq War that took a grenade hit and was forced to land?

It's bad.

But hardly fatal. Certainly humiliating. Probably ephemeral.

He's lucky in one sense. We live in a 24-second news cycle where attentions are stretched after a few minutes. Even Twitter seems to be bored with the story at the moment, although it's early.

What happened Wednesday is one of those moments where some of us reach reflexively to Mark Twain for guidance.

"Truth is the most valuable thing we have, so I try to conserve it." Or, "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything."

Or maybe early 20th century newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann captured the incident best with this line on wartime mythmaking: " ... the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe, and out of these three elements, a counterfeit of reality.”

Williams on Wednesday responded with an on-air apology and retraction as well as a written one on NBC Nightly News' Facebook page, essentially saying he misremembered the event by conflating a series of incidents until it congealed into one.

Unfortunately — if you believe Twitter — no one believes that either, and now he's got two fires to put out.

The truth here is both simple and complicated.

Here's how the story was reported in USA Today on March 31, 2003: "NBC's Brian Williams was stranded in the Iraqi desert for three days after a Chinook helicopter ahead of his was attacked by a man who fired a rocket-propelled grenade. The grenade just missed, but it forced the group to make an emergency landing. "

Next, here's how the official NBC version reads (as related before Williams was to give a speech at Notre Dame some years ago, and which often appears in his biography).

"Just days into the war, Williams was traveling on a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter mission when the lead helicopter was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade. Williams spent three days and two nights in the Iraqi desert south of Najaf, with a mechanized armored tank platoon of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division providing protection."

Next, here's what Williams told David Letterman as a guest on "The Late Show with David Letterman" on March 26, 2013:

"We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the 3rd Infantry could cross on them. Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47. We were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots because we had these massive piece of bridges beneath us on swings. We figure out how to land safely and we did. We landed very quickly and hard, and we put down and we were stuck. Four birds in the middle of the dessert and we were north out ahead of the other Americans."

Next, here's what Williams said on Monday's "Nightly News" broadcast (view the clip above): " ... The helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG ..."

Finally, two days later, at the end of Wednesday's "Nightly News" broadcast, Williams said:

“After a ground fire incident in the desert during the Iraq War invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago. It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the aircrews who were also in that desert. I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. ... This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and, by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not.”

(By the way, you will note that he's only apologizing for the Feb. 2 report — not all the other times that he went with this story over the years. So Wednesday's on-air comments have continued to raise questions about the insufficiency of this apology — so let's call this a third fire that he has to put out.)

Why is all this so bad for Williams?

In large measure because of the story's association with a war in which 4,491 U.S. service members were killed between 2003, and 2014. To embellish one's own involvement, however tangentially — one might argue — only serves to devalue their sacrifice.

But from a journalistic perspective, all an anchor ultimately has is that carefully crafted component of trust — that bond between newsreader and viewer that is predicated on the notion that everything that is told to the viewer is accurate and unvarnished. It may be a TV illusion, and it may be an impossibility, but that is still the coin of any TV anchor's realm, especially one who anchors the most-watched news program on television, "NBC Nightly News."

What's especially unfortunate about this is that I don't believe Williams — if you hear this story told in context over the years — necessarily set out to deceive or mislead intentionally, as much as to help. He may have succumbed to that Lippmann triad of mythmaking — " ... the casual fact, the creative imagination, the will to believe ..."

But to hear the story in context, he often seemed to use it as an exhortation to help the troops, or to support them. The RPG story was usually appended with that message, and perhaps he came to believe that a better story just seemed to make for a better pitch.

That doesn't make any of this right, and it's still bad. But maybe, when seen in that context, just not quite as bad.

Bottom line: Williams is a very good anchor who's done a lot of solid work over the years, including leading some of network TV's most consistent coverage of post-superstorm Sandy recovery efforts, as well as stories about 9/11 victims.

All that good work won't — or shouldn't — come undone because of one bad mistake. Still, Williams won't be talking about his Iraq War experiences anytime soon.

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