In Big Sunday Story, WashPost Finds More Brian Williams Myths

A team of Washington Post reporters did more myth-busting in the claims of Brian Williams in a Sunday front-page story that continued to two whole pages inside the paper. The headline was “Williams undone by his gift of storytelling: Anchor’s love of a good yarn played a role in his downfall.” Wild exaggerations? “That’s Brian being Brian” was the “newsroom shorthand.”

Reporters Manuel Roig-Franzia, Scott Higham, and Amy Brittain forwarded supportive statements from former NBC chief executive Bob Wright, but also added more rebuttal of Williams tall tales, like one we suggested on NewsBusters about Slim Jims:

In Williams’s telling, the pathos of the scene extended to his crew’s access to food. “We were desperate for food and drink. But not like the people we were seeing in the streets,” he said in the [2006 prime-time] documentary “In His Own Words: Brian Williams on Hurricane Katrina.”

“I remember seeing a box of Slim Jims and thinking, ‘That’s better than any restaurant meal right now. That’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’” he said.

However, there was abundant food at the Ritz-Carlton, according to DeGersdorff. The hotel was stocked for a fully booked weekend, and it set out buffet breakfasts, lunches and dinners each day.

Later, after the NBC crew left the hotel, the network set up a compound with about two dozen RVs and had “food being trucked in from Houston,” said a producer who worked with Williams during the storm.

The Post also underlined our point that Williams never mentioned his wild claims – the dysentery, the gangs overrunning his hotel – in his blogs or newscasts at the time.

The credibility of his claims is undercut by the fact that Williams appears to have made no mention of them during his frequent appearances on news programs during the storm or in the daily blog posts he wrote while in New Orleans.

Williams stayed at the Ritz-Carlton hotel situated at the edge of the French Quarter. Myra DeGersdorff, who managed the hotel at the time, said in an interview that “by no means had gangs overrun the hotel.”

DeGersdorff said that the hotel was being used as a “mini command post” by the New Orleans Police Department and that she had marshaled her entire security staff to patrol the hotel and to block stairwell doors with king-size mattresses.

DeGersdorff also questioned Williams’s claim about getting dysentery, noting that the hotel set up bleach stations to prevent contamination and that, by chance, she had a group of infectious disease doctors staying in the hotel who she said would have been alerted if any cases of the disease appeared.

Also, a former top New Orleans health official told the New Orleans Advocate that there were no dysentery outbreaks during the storm.

The “I witnessed a suicide” claim is also challenged:

In June last year, Williams said in a taped interview at Columbia University with Brokaw that “all of us watched as one man committed suicide.”

That account was challenged by an NBC producer who was with Williams in the Superdome that night.

“I didn’t see anyone commit suicide. None of us did,” said the producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of warnings by NBC management about discussing Williams publicly.

Williams’s own reporting at the time contradicts the account as well.

In an MSNBC documentary about Hurricane Katrina, Williams said that while he and his crew were in the Superdome, they “heard” that someone had committed suicide by leaping from an upper deck.

The Post tallied that Williams was making tons of appearances on non-news shows where he could exaggerate his experiences:

From 2006 to 2011, he appeared at least 146 times on programs such as “Late Show With David Letterman,” “The Tonight Show,” “Ellen” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” according to a Washington Post analysis.

At 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York, NBC executives cheered the appearances.

In the newsroom, reporters and producers grew increasingly concerned.

“Brian was a hell of a journalist,” said a longtime NBC producer, who no longer works for the network. “But Brian was always pressured by management to be more approachable, show that raconteur side of himself. And when you go on Letterman or Stewart, there are different rules.

“They are looking for good stories, and Brian knows how to tell good stories.”

The Post added Williams loved New Jersey tall tales.

For a 2008 piece in New Jersey Monthly, he reminisced fondly about a train stop in Secaucus, N.J., where he saw “down below in the Meadowlands two guys definitely up to no good. They’re about to take someone or something out of the trunk.

“And I just thought to myself, ‘Man, I love the Garden State.’”

Williams even made things up in New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy:

In 2012, after Superstorm Sandy savaged the Jersey Shore, Williams returned to his roots for an NBC report that aired on his now-defunct “Rock Center” show. On Nov. 1, Williams reported from the front of Hoffman’s ice cream shop in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. It was pitch dark as he peered sadly through the door of the store.

He turned to the camera.

“On top of everything we’ve seen all day,” he declared, “this may be the saddest sight of all.”

The piece was crafted to convey more than dramatic television. It appeared to be personal. Williams assumed the role of the wistful New Jersey native, lamenting the fate of Hoffman’s, a favorite indulgence he and his compatriots had come to know from their childhoods.

“This is where you end up if you’re from this part of the Jersey Shore,” he told his viewers. “Like everybody else, you’ve told yourself all day — even during dinner — you’re going to be strong. Tonight’s the night you’re not going to do it. But you end up here.”

Viewers could have been left with the impression that Hoffman’s had been flooded, battered by high winds, a metaphor for so many losses that had been suffered when the tidal surge swept away people and houses and amusement park rides.

But something was not quite right. Hoffman’s is nearly half a mile from the ocean, and the water never flooded the ice cream shop or any of the businesses in that area of Point Pleasant Beach, neighbors and a shop worker told The Post.

This is why it’s amusing when the Post notes that when Williams was joking up a storm on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart the “fake anchor told the real anchor to be” in 2001: “Why do I think you’d be better at this job than I am?”

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis