Ed Driscoll

CNN: Did Brian Williams Manipulate Audio in His Original 2003 Chopper Whopper?

Scroll down to the bottom for the update to this post, on Jake Tapper’s interview this afternoon with the Stars & Stripes reporter who broke the Brian Williams “chopper whopper” story earlier this week. Even before these new questions emerged, Scott Whitlock of Newsbusters noted that “According to CNN media correspondent Brian Stelter, ‘fear’ is setting in at NBC as the executives and journalists there worry over the widening ‘questions’ being raised about Brian Williams”:

Stelter appeared with Carol Costello, Friday and revealed, “…When I’m speaking to my sources at NBC, I hear more confusion and, frankly, I hear fear in their voices about how this is going to play out because there are even questions about other stories Brian Williams reported in other parts of the world.”

Stelter marveled, “This is a crisis for NBC… This is humiliating at this point for Brian Williams and for his colleagues.” The CNN journalist went on to explain that an Army pilot who appeared to endorse part of Williams’s story has now backtracked. Rich Krell previously stated that the helicopter the anchor was in did take enemy fire (though not a RPG).

Here’s the concluding portion of Whitlock’s transcript of Stelter’s interview with Costello:

STELTER: This is a crisis for NBC. You’re right. You know, look at this morning’s New York Post. [Holds up cover.] I have never seen anything like this. This is a network news anchor with a Pinocchio nose on him –

COSTELLO: Awwww.

STELTER: – calling him a nose for news. This is humiliating at this point for Brian Williams and for his colleagues. I can tell you that Tom Brokaw, for example, his predecessor, is furious about what’s going on and there’s lots of people in rank and file at NBC who also have a lot of questions about the murkiness of Brian Williams’ story. The reason why me and other reporters are trying to interview other soldiers and others there is because there is all this lack of clarity about what really happened. Like I said, I’m sensing even a bit of fear at NBC about what to do and how this is going to play out. He has a lot of credibility and he has a wonderful legacy of reporting. But there are serious questions now.

The 29-year-old Stelter has “never seen anything like this”? Gee, wait’ll he discovers RatherGate and what led to Eason Jordan losing his plum gig as CNN’s boss:

The New York Post’s Page Six claims that NBC has set up a “Brian Williams Truth Squad” (which itself sounds like something out a war movie — the truth squad is parachuting in!) to investigate their anchor’s other tall tales. (Shades of CBS’s Thornburgh Report in 2005 which led to Dan Rather’s ouster and the New York Times recanting Jayson Blair’s many fables.) In addition to Williams’ various claims about being shot down over Macho Grande and witnessing the walking dead after Katrina (or something like that), his stories go all the way to rescuing multiple puppies when he was a volunteer fireman. Williams told the Today Show in 2011, “I was wearing a breathing apparatus, conducting a search on my hands and knees, when I felt something warm, squishy and furry on the floor of a closet. I instinctively tucked it in my coat. When I got outside, I saw two small eyes staring up at me, and I returned the 3-week-old (and very scared) puppy to its grateful owners.” In an earlier interview, as spotted by video aggregator Grabien, Williams claimed he found two puppies:

Talking to Esquire in 2005, Williams boasted, “All I ever did as a volunteer fireman was once save two puppies.” Note that he didn’t say “save two puppies,” which could have meant saving an individual puppy on two occasions. He clearly says this happened “once.”

In his latest G-File (emailed to subscribers today, online tomorrow), Jonah Goldberg describes Williams’ tall tales as “really kind of sad and pathetic”:

Does Williams’s lie matter? Of course it does. As Hinderaker notes, Williams is wildly overpaid to do a job that is largely theatrical. In a free market, if that makes sense, so be it. But as Peter Parker learned when he didn’t stop the crook who ultimately killed his Uncle Ben, with great power (and great paychecks) comes great responsibility. Williams is paid millions of dollars to do the following:

1. Look good on camera

2. Read true things from a teleprompter about news stuff

3. Be trustworthy

4. Not spontaneously combust or become some sort of lycanthrope on camera (werewolf, werebasset, Lou Albano, etc.).

I’m sure he does other things. Some news anchors actually work hard at putting together the newscast. But the point is that Williams doesn’t have to do that. He does have to do the things listed above. If he got a face tattoo depicting a biker-gang orgy, he’d lose his job. If he suddenly came down with some strange malady that caused him to read the news in Elvish (which, by the way, is how you say “Elvis” with a mouthful of crackers), he’d lose his job.

As for being trustworthy, the question remains whether this is a big enough of a breach to justify losing his job. That probably depends on what we learn in the days ahead about other statements Williams has made and how he handles himself. Should he lose his job over what we know already? Maybe. I don’t know. On the one hand, if he was really counseled to stop telling the story and kept doing it, then he’s got real problems. On the other hand, I don’t take NBC News seriously, and having damaged goods in the anchor chair might be a good thing.

Rarely am I so torn about an issue that matters so little.

Just as with George H.W. Bush’s “Read My Lips, No New Taxes,” Bill Clinton’s serial lies about Monica Lewisky and his other umm, adventures, Hillary’s Tuzla sniper lies, and Obama’s “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan,” Williams is now a known liar in a position of serious authority. Jonah may not take NBC News seriously (and I agree — it’s been an MSNBC-tainted joke known for its serial lies for many years now), but according to Ad Week, Williams draws about nine million viewers a night. That’s down from Tom Brokaw’s last numbers in 2004, which averaged 11 million viewers, and way down from the glory days (read: monopoly) of the Big Three, when Walter Cronkite averaged double those numbers in the 1960s. But that’s still a lot of people whose opinions Williams can shape — and two guesses which direction his politics lean.

Jonah compared Williams’ serial lies to the guy at the bar telling tall tales to his buddies:

Some people embellish stories, lots and lots of people. The fish always gets bigger. The girl at the bar gets hotter. The other guy in the fight gets tougher. At some point the embellishments cover up the original, like layers of graffiti. That’s what Williams did. Don’t get me wrong. He lied and his apology minimized the size and duration of the lie. But the nature of the lie wasn’t nearly as bad as those of countless others who yoked deceit to a partisan agenda or for political gain. He was trying to praise the military and wanted a little more of their glory to rub off on him.

But there’s a big difference — unless you’re being videotaped for American Sportsman or your wife brought her flip cam, no one has a record of you reeling in the big one. Williams’ original reporting of his helicopter exploits is on videotape — you can watch it here. Williams should have known that it’s been archived, just as John Kerry should have known that the lies he told in the 1970s would resurface in 2004. Did Williams not think that somebody would go to the tape and check his stories? (As with Kerry before him, as someone noted on Twitter today, “Apparently Brian Williams & legacy media in general ignore that a lot of bloggers are former military.”)

Why Williams was out in the helicopter in the first place in 2003 is easy to understand; it obviously wasn’t to break news. Just as the now-fossilized evening news format dates back to the very early days of network television in the late 1940s, so to0 does the idea that the anchorman should have some wartime experience on his resume. However daft Walter Cronkite got in his later years, according to his biographer Douglas Brinkley, Cronkite covered the Blitz in London for United Press (now UPI), and flew as a journalist on B-17 bomber missions over Germany. Given the low survival rate of WWII bomber crews, that’s harrowing stuff.

It led, though, to Cronkite making millions largely by sitting behind a brightly-lit desk in front of a Sony video camera on a tripod, reading copy written for him and placed into a Teleprompter, into his clip-on Shure lavalier mic attached to his Paul Stuart tie and Savile Row suit. That’s not quite as adventurous a mission, which is why having the backstory about his World War II exploits helped establish his gravitas.

Similarly, by 2003, the NBC brass must have known Tom Brokaw was nearing retirement in the next year or two, and sent Williams out to establish his anchorman bona fides in a sort of Reader’s Digest condensed version of the Cronkite method.

But once he got the gig, it’s not like Williams has singlehandedly broken major stories by working the phones and his sources ala Redford & Hoffman in All the President’s Men. 

Prior to this week, ultimately, all Williams had was an attractive face, a decent voice, and a reputation relatively untainted by scandal.

Well, as as the legendary existential philosopher Meatloaf once exclaimed, “Two out of three ain’t bad.”

Will that be enough to save Williams’ job? That’s up to NBC. And given how awful their reputation is right now, maybe.

Related: “Since the advent of television, no network news anchor has so fervently courted celebrity quite like NBC’s Brian Williams,” a Hollywood Reporter columnist notes:

To be sure, TV news anchors present and past — including Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and many others — were indeed famous, which is to say identifiable to a mass audience almost solely based on the work they did.

Williams can hardly be blamed for wanting to raise his profile. With recognition ideally comes viewers. And as the audience for broadcast television generally, and network evening newscasts in particular, has splintered and eroded beginning almost concurrently with his ascension to NBC Nightly News anchor in 2004, no longer does putting on a solid journalistic broadcast ensure that viewers with watch it. Williams’ Nightly News leads his competitors in the ratings, drawing just under 9 million viewers on average against slightly more than 8 million for ABC and about 7 million for CBS.

Up against 24-hour news networks and an endless stream of information being digitally blasted to an always-on audience, to say nothing of videogames, YouTube videos, messaging apps, and the plethora of other activities fighting for our attention, Williams did what he presumably thought he had to do to generate viewers: He pimped himself out.

Frequently — and sometimes freely, like when he very boldly hosted Saturday Night Live in 2007 or slow jams the news with NBC colleague Jimmy Fallon. And sometimes silently if not willingly, such as when Fallon uses supercuts of Williams’ broadcasts to create viral videos of the tired but still very popular “serious white guy rapping” trope.

NBC helped to invent the persona of the parody news anchor via Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live, a role now best known as being inhabited in more recent years by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Evidently, Williams would rather be Stewart or Colbert, than taken seriously as a real journalist.

He may get his wish yet.

Update: I had been assuming that Williams’ original report in 2003 was relatively unvarnished, but it slowly became Robert Duvall, Martin Sheen and the “Flight of the Valkyries” scene from Apocalypse Now as Williams continually retold the story on various talk shows. But as Ed Morrissey writes at Hot Air, Jake Tapper of CNN interviewed Travis Tritten of Stars & Stripes today, who says that Williams or the technical boffins who videotaped him in the chopper used the audio from a different mission to play up Williams’ aerial exploits right from the start:

TAPPER: So there is this moment where somebody’s saying our helicopter is taking small arms fire and it’s not taking it now, but they were and we need to find some place for security, over — that’s in the radio. Do you have any idea what that was in reference to?

TRITTEN: I do, actually. I spoke with the flight engineer on Williams’ Chinook, Joseph Miller, and what he told me is that Williams and the NBC crew, actually, they’d been given a headset and they had taken a microphone, and they had put it in the earpiece of the headset so that they could pick up the radio communications between the company that they were in and another company of Chinooks that was flying a separate mission in the opposite direction. So what you’re hearing is that radio chatter from that other company that was coming under fire.

Wow, NBC futzing with audio timeline to distort a story? That’s umpossible!

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As Ed Morrissey writes:

If what Tritten and Miller say is true, then not only did Williams tell a false story for 12 years, Williams and his entire NBC crew presented a false report to NBC viewers. They edited in the radio traffic of another mission in order to make it look like their mission came under fire. Some have asked why Williams’ crew didn’t come forward to confirm or deny Williams’ story; well, this would explain why they’d prefer to keep quiet. If Tritten and Miller got this wrong, then we’d better start seeing some denials from everyone involved — and the raw footage and audio from 2003 to confirm it.

This raises the stakes considerably for NBC News. It’s no longer Williams lying in other venues, if Tritten and Miller are correct. It’s that Williams cooked a story and put it on the air. A simple apology won’t cover that kind of journalistic sin.

And note that CNN is quickly smelling blood in the water, unlike 2004 when virtually the entire MSM outside of Fox circled the wagons to protect Dan Rather.