You can’t get away with it any more

brian-williams-dr-dre-g-thing-fallonOn Christmas Day 2009 your columnist was on Northwest Airlines flight 253 onto which Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab had smuggled explosives in his underpants. Fortunately, we were able to overpower him and save the plane . . .  actually, my wife has just corrected me. We were, in fact, waiting for a flight out of Detroit at the time flight 253 was coming into Detroit. I hope you can see how I might have conflated these incidents.

If you struggle to believe that I can genuinely have been confused on the question of whether I was on the plane or in the airport at the time, you will probably be even more cynical about NBC anchor, Brian Williams. For years he has claimed he was onboard a helicopter that was shot down with a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) in Iraq in 2003. It was on Facebook that someone who was onboard the helicopter complained that he did not remember Williams being present. He remembers him arriving about an hour later to ask questions about it. Williams now admits that he was not on the helicopter that was shot down but in another one just behind it. He had inadvertently conflated the two. This seems hard to believe. Even his claim to have been in a helicopter just behind – close enough to have seen the incident – is questionable, if it was an hour later that he arrived on the scene. 

Since this incident emerged, others have come forward to cast doubt on his descriptions of events in New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. He claimed, among other things, to have contracted dysentery from drinking the flood water. Doctors in New Orleans claim to have encountered zero cases of dysentery in the aftermath of Katrina. Just like being shot down by an RPG, contracting dysentery is the sort of thing about which someone is unlikely to have been confused.

So why did he do it? Katrina and Iraq were the two events which did most to damage the reputation of then president, George W Bush. Was Williams seeking to over-dramatize events surrounding these stories in order to damage Bush? Possibly, but there are good reasons for doubting this. For one thing, although the Iraq War became a political problem for Bush, it was still a popular policy in 2003. It also seems unlikely to be a coincidence that in both cases Williams was placing himself much closer to the center of events. More than anything, he was engaged in an effort at self-aggrandizement. He was adding drama to events to make himself seem like a hero – though drinking floodwater, in which he also claimed to have seen dead bodies floating, seems more idiotic than heroic. 

Williams has not quite caught up with the decline of mass media. He believes he is living in the Twentieth Century, when three networks could not be challenged. But now other people are able to publish their accounts and expose the lies. It is not just bloggers – such as those that brought down Dan Rather – but the whole of Facebook who can publish now.

Rather, by the way, has spoken out in support of Williams. He also stands by the story – based on a forged document – that ended his career. He falsely labels his critics ‘birthers’. He is standing athwart history and yelling “STOP”. 

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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