Skip to navigationSkip to content

Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

brian williams
AP Photo/Richard Drew
What was he thinking?

A decade ago, Brian Williams would’ve gotten away with it

Sujatha Shenoy
By Sujatha Shenoy

Brian Williams, NBC’s once highly trusted news anchor, is an unlikely candidate to spin a tall tale. As we all know by now, Williams was guilty of falsely claiming that his helicopter came under enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. In reality, his Chinook helicopter landed an hour after the aircraft that was actually hit. Williams was never under fire.

Why would a respected TV news anchor invent a story that could so easily be disproved?

Here’s one way to look at it: Perhaps it was because he just didn’t expect his story to be scrutinized. Or perhaps it started out as a careless exaggeration which he could not be bothered to backtrack because no one had the opportunity to publicly question the facts.

What’s really not been talked about is the fact that Brian Williams first spun his tale in an era without ubiquitous smartphones, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the like.

When Williams first told the story in 2003, the odds that he would be caught out were low. By the time he was forced to admit that his story was wrong in 2015, social media had exploded and the odds that his story would be publicly challenged at some point were very high.

Think back to 2003, the year when Williams was in that Chinook helicopter and first broadcast his story about coming under fire. It was a very different media world, far removed from today’s world of instant feedback, fact checks and hashtags.

Here’s what it looked like back then:

  • Google existed but it would not be public till 2004.
  • Facebook was not around. It would be launched only in 2004.
  • YouTube was not around. It would be founded a year later in 2005.
  • Twitter was not around. It would be launched even later in 2006.
  • The iPhone was not around. It would be unveiled only in 2007.

In 2003, social media’s explosive growth was yet to come. Today’s frenzied world of information sharing and public commentary did not exist. Media personnel now get instant feedback. Fact checking is the norm, as much by readers as by editors. Citizen journalists can break news by uploading videos of unfolding events. Even though news delivery is much more fragmented with the explosion of new media sites, stories can go viral very quickly around the world.

It’s hard to realize just how much the media world has changed over the past decade unless you happen to have been in a time capsule over the past decade. I was.

Back in 2004, I was a newly minted MBA who had left journalism for the corporate world. In 2014, I started writing again. My first piece to be published was in The New York Time’s Motherlode blog. It was a gentle piece about my son and his surprise that there were no American Boy dolls.

As the article was shared online and comments multiplied, I was startled by the level of attention paid by some commentators to each word in my very personal essay. There were supportive comments and helpful tips on getting boy dolls but there were also comments that hurt, comments that questioned my parenting. “Now I know how authors feel,” I joked with a friend, half amused, half amazed at the scrutiny that my essay received. Writing after the long hiatus, I felt like someone who had arrived to a very different world in a time machine.

Williams, it turns out, was also unprepared for the level of scrutiny that his Chinook story suddenly began to receive. In a February 4, 2015, interview with the Stars and Stripes, Williams said that he made a mistake in recollecting what happened because it was his first engagement of the war and he was scared.

News reporters, though, rely on interviews and fact checks to ensure that their stories are accurate. Williams took a different path. When the Stars and Stripes asked why his recollection differed from that of the soldiers present at the incident, his answer was strange, “I’m going to have a far different recollection than the professionals.”

Even if his story started out as a mistake, there was no attempt to either verify or rectify the facts. There was little pressure to do so. In 2003, as some of the soldiers who had tried correcting the news anchor’s version discovered, it was hard to find someone in the media who would listen. Publicly unchallenged, and without fact checking or dissenting voices, the story grew a little more dramatic.

That’s not surprising given the media world that existed when Williams was building his reporting career. There was no instant feedback loop. In that world of print and television/ radio reporting, there were letters to the editors and the occasional irate or complimentary phone calls. Mistakes were made, of course but errors were acknowledged quietly, tucked away on an inside page or in a small paragraph at the bottom of Page 1. Yes, fraudulent stories were uncovered, a prime example being Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize winning story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. In general though, most fact checking was internal. There was far less outside scrutiny, less public parsing of each word, less vitriol.

In an odd twist, the embellishments to the Chinook story mimicked the growth in social media. As the tale was retold more dramatically, many more ways to discuss the story emerged.

In the years between 2003 and 2015, the probability of being caught out changed dramatically. Brian Williams, perhaps far too comfortable in his pre-2000 world, did not change. The irony is that he was found out only because he missed understanding the personal implications of the biggest story in his own industry—the transformational changes that social media has brought to the business of reporting.