NBC News anchor Brian Williams was recently revealed to have made up the story he told many times that the helicopter carrying him in Iraq in 2003 was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The story itself was blown apart after he celebrated a reunion with one of his supposed rescuers at a New York Rangers hockey game on Jan. 29. Following news coverage of that reunion by his own network, crew members of the chopper carrying Williams said his story was not true—no hit taken by his helicopter, no rescue.
Since the big reveal, news organizations have been abuzz with speculation on how “one of their own” could have sullied Big News’ reputation for accurate and objective reporting. Most of that speculation effused about journalism’s high standard for the personal integrity of its members, the implication being that Williams was a case of “the right stuff” going wrong. The fallout could be serious, said the critics: If reporters can’t tell the truth about their own time in a war zone, why should we believe whatever else they tell us? (Last night, NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay.)
Most of the punditry has plied the “character flaw” theme, looking for some personality defect that would explain how a news-business rock star like Williams could have done something so self-destructive. In her Sunday column Maureen Dowd alluded to a masculinity gap, hidden from the rest of us, which Williams sought to close with his own “Hemingwayesque, bullets-whizzing-by” tale of battlefield reporting.
The men-tell-war-stories explanation points in a promising direction. After all, from Vietnam to the present, news reports are littered with stories of men claiming martial accomplishments beyond what can be documented. Some coverage of Williams’ mess-up, for example, recalls that Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal claimed to have been in Vietnam when he had not. (Actually, Blumenthal’s claim was that he had been spat on by protesters when he returned from Vietnam—where he had never been.)
It is, however, the Williams-as-newsman angle that gives his case added significance. It does matter more than it otherwise might that he, a prominent figure with professional responsibility for accuracy in reporting, publicly falsified his experience in Iraq. That being the case, it is then curious that the critics have ignored previous cases with troubling similarity to his, indeed cases that may in fact help explain why he made the misrepresentations that he did.
According to the timeline constructed by the New York Post, Williams’ initial recounting of his story in March 2003 had “the Chinook [helicopter] ahead of us almost blown out of the sky.” On May 12, 2008, he revised it to “... as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire, we were forced down and stayed down.” What might have prompted Williams to “reach” for a more combat-credentialing version of his story at that point in time?
The answer to that cannot lie in matters of character or personality; those were well enough established in the 55-year-old Williams. Rather, the answer has to lie outside him, in changes in the circumstances in which he lived and worked, changes perceived by him as significant enough—perhaps even threatening enough—to warrant an adjustment of his own personae. In keeping with a strongly held view among memory scholars that it is commonplace for us to revise our memories to fit the needs of our present—changed circumstances in our lives require alterations in our stories of how we came to be the persons we are—it is likely that events close enough to Williams’ professional life could have prompted his change of story, and even changed what he remembered.
In January 2006 ABC newsman Bob Woodruff was wounded while covering the 4th Infantry operations near Baghdad. Like Williams, Woodruff was a news-media celebrity. It was a combat-journalist story that kept him in the news headlines for days, after which the coverage of his recovery at Bethesda Naval Hospital held the attention of news consumers and, of course, the journalism community. In February 2007, ABC News aired a documentary based on "In an Instant: A Family's Journey of Love and Healing," written by Woodruff and his wife, Lee, about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Within days of its release, the book had bumped Barack Obama’s autobiography "The Audacity of Hope" from the New York Times No. 1 bestseller slot.
As the Woodruff story moved from battlefield to Bethesda and on to the bookstores, CBS news reporter Kimberly Dozier’s story was running parallel. Dozier was wounded on May 29, 2006, on a foot patrol with the 4th Infantry Division. A woman war reporter wounded in ground fighting had enormous news value, as did the extent of the damage done to her body—much greater than that sustained by Woodruff. Dozier, too, wrote a book about the experience, "Breathing the Fire," and it was released on May 13, 2008.
On nearly the exact day that Dozier’s book was released—and 15 months after Woodruff’s book had taken the literary world by storm—Brian Williams claimed for the first time that his chopper, along with three others, had taken fire and been forced down.
Even without the imprimatur of memory theorists, the timing of that leap on the timeline of Williams’ story—so coincidental, as it was, with the emergence of Woodruff and Dozier as celebrity warrior-journalists—is hard to dismiss. The ordinary exercise of putting one’s self in his shoes lends sufficient appreciation for the temptation he must have felt to stay “in the game” by tweaking his own story. At that level, the “why?” question should not be furrowing so many brows.
More to the point of what critics are missing, however, is the culture of swashbuckling journalism that news-industry leaders had allowed to develop, a culture that encouraged their stars’ self-representation as hero figures with battle wounds to validate their combat bona fides. At the time of Bob Woodruff’s wounding in Iraq, there was speculation that he had been “hotdogging,” unnecessarily exposing himself to fire when he was hit, and that ABC News had enabled his risk-taking to advance its ratings. And as with Williams, questions surrounded the authenticity of the story told: He had walked to the medical-aid chopper, according to a report carried by the Washington Post, thereby placing an asterisk on the drama surrounding his recovery. Those details notwithstanding, ABC News poured its resources and reputation into the promotion of Woodruff and his book, making him the poster boy of 21st-century war reporting and, more important, the image of Purple Heart journalism, journalism with the manly mettle credentialed with the wounds of war.
Kimberly Dozier, meanwhile, was lost in the footnotes of journalism history and yet she is a footnote with the poignancy of an exception-that-proves-the-rule. The details of the combat incident in which she was wounded and the horror of her injuries both surpassed the news value in Woodruff’s story, and yet she and her book quickly fell from view. From the outset, she refused to play “the victim card.” If anything, she positioned herself as the anti-Woodruff in the narrative of soldiers and reporters returning home from war with the hidden injuries of trauma beyond what was evinced by their bodies. Woodruff made himself the “face” of PTSD and TBI, the figure for the home-with-hurts narrative that the press establishment was building as its postwar coming-home story line. Dozier would have none of it, rejecting the diagnosis offered her for PTSD and declaring in her book, “I’m not a victim.” In turn, the press establishment appeared indifferent to her Iraq experience and the book world ignored her book.
If Williams’ demise began on the road paved by the Bob Woodruff story, surely his colleagues at ABC and others in the larger community of journalists bear culpability for abiding if not facilitating the war-story culture that metastasized in their newsrooms.
The questions raised about Williams’ personal qualities would be better recast as questions about an American political culture that valorizes losses sustained in war as evidence of virtue and valor, and a culture of journalism in which combat experience is thought to enhance professional credibility.