Exclusive: Pilots from Brian Williams story speak out
Today on Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter explores the allegations against NBC News Anchor, Brian Williams. In their first TV appearances, both the pilot of Brian Williams’ chopper, Chief Allen Kelly, and the pilot of the chopper actually hit by an RPG in Iraq, Don Helus, speak to Brian Stelter. Lt. Gen. Russell Honoré who directed humanitarian relief after the hurricane responds to Brian Williams’ Katrina stories. Is Brian Williams still a reliable source? Kimberly Dozier, Jeff Greenfield, and Frank Sesno discuss the journalistic questions behind this growing scandal. Reliable Sources airs Sundays, 11 a.m. to noon (ET). A transcript and videos from the show are available below.
Exclusive: Pilots from Brian Williams story speak out
Lt. Gen. Honoré: Williams’ Katrina claim “very suspect”
Will Brian Williams return to the NBC Nightly News?
After repeated mistakes, does NBC have a trust problem?
BRIAN STELTER, CNN HOST: Good morning. I’m Brian Stelter. And it’s time for RELIABLE SOURCES.
Today’s program is all about what’s reliable. The TV industry is transfixed by what is an extraordinary scandal at NBC imperiling the face of the network’s news division, Brian Williams. The “Nightly News” anchor admitted to embellishing a story about coming under fire in Iraq in 2003.
That matters because, well, Brian Williams — let me put it this way — this country has no Walter Cronkite anymore, but Brian Williams is the closest thing to Cronkite we have left. But now, he has benched himself, as one source said to me, while NBC figures out what is true and what’s not true.
Here is what Brian Williams said in a statement yesterday to his colleagues: “It has become painfully apparent to me I’m too much a part of the news due to my actions. As managing editor of NBC News, I’ve decided to take myself off my daily broadcast for the next several days.” He went on to say, “Upon my return, I will continue my career long effort to be worthy of the trust of those who place their trust in us.”
So, he says he will be back. But to be honest, others are not so sure, even some people at NBC this morning.
So, here are the latest developments. Lester Holt, weekend “Nightly News” anchor, will be filling in for Brian Williams starting tomorrow. It’s unclear for how long.
Meanwhile, NBC’s investigative unit is checking all the facts, trying to figure out what really happened in Iraq and New Orleans. We’ll get to that a little later in the program. Brian Williams was scheduled to be on the “Late Show with David Letterman” this Thursday. And CBS tells me that’s going forward. But I’m told by a source close to Brian Williams it’s actually undecided whether he will appear.
Our experts have a lot to say whether Williams — and I hate saying these words — whether Williams can survive this. We have the first TV interviews of two pilots there that day with Williams. One who flew with the anchor and one who actually came under attack. Before we get to them, let’s see how this story evolved from a truth to a lie.
STELTER (voice-over): The first report was broadcast just a week or so after the beginning of the Iraq war. In a segment for NBC’s “Dateline”, Brian Williams recount add harrowing incident under fire. The date March 26th, 2003.
TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: Our colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies over Iraq.
STELTER: In his report, Williams says he was traveling with a group of four army helicopters based ones in Kuwait, large ones, called Chinooks. They can carry troops and in this case equipment to build bridges in Iraq so motorized units could cross the river.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: On the ground, we learned the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky. That hole was made by a rocket-propelled grenade or RPG.
STELTER: After that attack, all four helicopters landed, and a sandstorm grounded them for three days and two nights. The Army sent soldiers to guard the choppers as well as Williams and his team.
In that initial report, he makes no further mention of the RPG attack or that his helicopter takes fire. He does say soldiers told him they spotted four Iraqis with what looks like RPG during their first night in the desert.
WILLIAMS: What we didn’t know we were north of the invasion. We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq.
STELTER: Fast forward 10 years.
DAVID LETTERMAN, TV HOST: Our good friend Brian Williams.
STELTER: Ten years to the day, March 26th, 2013. Brian Williams told that tore to David Letterman, except this time saying he was on one of two army choppers that were hit both by RPGs and small arms fire.
WILLIAMS: Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire including the one I was in.
LETTERMAN: No kidding.
WILLIAMS: RPG and AK-47.
STELTER: The question, of course, is what exactly happened in those 10 years to make Williams change his story?
As with all war stories, it’s complicated. And Williams’ version slowly evolved.
A few months after the helicopter incident, NBC News published this book, “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” In it, the account is vague, no mention of which helicopter was attacked or where exactly it took place. The story didn’t really resurface until a few years later, when Williams returned to Iraq.
In a blog post in 2007, Williams celebrated the life of Wayne Downey, a retired general who was an NBC News military analyst who was in the chopper with Williams that day in 2003.
Williams referenced the Iraq incident again, “Some men on the ground fired RPG through the tail rotor of the chopper in front of ours,” Williams wrote. There were small arms fire, a chopper pilot took a bullet through the earlobe. All four choppers dropped their heavy loads and landed quickly and hard on the desert floor.”
Williams obituary for downing began with the incident. And the obituary left the impression that Williams and the general were forced down by enemy fire.
WILLIAMS: When the Chinook helicopters we were trampling in at the start of the Iraq war were fired on and forced down for three days in a stretch of hostile desert.
STELTER: In 2008, in a different blog post, Williams added a new detail. This time, all four choppers took fire. He wrote, “All four of our low flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down.”
Then, in 2013, to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq war, Williams went on the Letterman show.
And he also talked with actor Alec Baldwin about it for a radio podcast. Instead of just writing about it, now, he was telling the story of bullets fired into his helicopter.
WILLIAMS: I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things like being in a helicopter I have no business being in, in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe. But I —
ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: Did you think you would die? Did you think you would die?
WILLIAMS: Briefly. Sure.
STELTER: And then this, just about 10 days ago, when Williams was at a New York Rangers hockey game and appeared with an Army sergeant major who was in Iraq and with the helicopter unit at the time. The soldier had helped protect Williams and his team.
Now, a big change in the story — this is how he told it on NBC “Nightly News.”
WILLIAMS: The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.
STELTER: The previous version had evolved to all four choppers being fired upon. This latest one added the RPG. Some soldiers who also were there began speaking out saying on Facebook they had no memory of Williams being on the one chopper that did take a rocket-propelled grenade.
And were all the helicopters told to land because they had been fired upon or was it because of that sandstorm?
Truth is a tricky thing in war.
STELTER: Now, let’s hear exactly what happened on the helicopter that actually took RPG and small arms fire.
Don Helus was one of the pilots. He says he noticed Brian Williams inaccurately telling the story more than a decade ago and wrote to NBC about it. He also says he never heard anything back. And he’s sharing his story for the first time on television this morning.
Mr. Helus, thank you for calling in from Enterprise, Alabama, this morning.
DON HELUS, CHOPPER PILOT (via telephone): Good morning, Brian.
STELTER: Tell me, do you know where Brian Williams was at the moment your helicopter was hit by the RPG?
HELUS: Well, we had a lot going on, but I am pretty sure he was not in our flight at all.
STELTER: Meaning he must have been so far away he couldn’t see the incident happen?
HELUS: Yes. I mean, because we had two units, each had a different mission. They are separated, you know, by time. Their destination may be different from what our destination is, you know? So, it can put time between the two flights as they are heading up north.
STELTER: And when is the first time you ever heard Brian Williams describe what happened inaccurately?
HELUS: When I had returned back to Kuwait for repairs on the aircraft, a friend of mine had alerted me of the story and basically asked me if we had Brian Williams on our flight which I told him not — we did not. And then he showed me a video of it on the Internet, because at the time, that was the first time I had seen Internet in a while.
STELTER: So, you were in Kuwait, this was, what, April 2003? It was very early in the Iraq war?
HELUS: Yes. Like we said, after the sandstorm we had just gotten back. Our aircraft had to go into maintenance for about two or three weeks.
STELTER: This is — this is crucial, Mr. Helus, because according to the time line we’ve been looking at for the past severak days, it wasn’t until about 2007 that Brian Williams began to embellish the story about being nearby or on the chopper that was struck by RPG. So, you’re saying you heard it on television in 2003?
HELUS: I’m saying I heard it on the Internet that was an interview.
STELTER: An Internet video of the television segment? Yes.
STELTER: So to be clear, there’s a Tom Brokaw interview of Brian Williams a couple days after the incident where he does seem to accurately say it happened to a different chopper other than his own. But what we don’t know is whether there are other videos in the archives from, say, April 2003 where Brian Williams goes further. Unfortunately, records of those times are incomplete. There aren’t transcripts of every single segment on NBC or MSNBC from that time. So, we haven’t been able to find the video you saw.
But you wrote to NBC, and what did you say when you wrote in?
HELUS: Well, I wrote to MSNBC at the time because that was the Web site I went to.
STELTER: I’m sorry. I was just going to tell our viewers at home, at the time MSNBC.com was the Web site for NBC News. So, that’s why you went to MSNBC.com.
STELTER: And you wrote to NBC to do what? To get them to correct it?
HELUS: Just to alert them that the facts were incorrect, because, you know, stating that Mr. Williams was not part of our flight. He was in a different flight.
STELTER: In 2007, at Fairfield University, Connecticut, Brian Williams said a different version of the story. I want to play that sound bite for you and get your reaction.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: A few years before that, you go back to Iraq and I look down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us, and it hit the chopper in front of ours.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Is it possible he was able to look down the tube of a rocket-propelled grenade launcher?
HELUS: Well, I guess if he’s that close, then he’s got bigger problems. The only thing you see coming off of an RPG was the smoke trail and explosion. Like I said, if you’re that close, you have bad luck.
STELTER: I’m trying to keep an open mind about Brian Williams. I have been inspired by Brian Williams for years. I’ve admired him for years.
I wonder if you admire him? I wonder how you feel about him given you tried to contact NBC about this so long ago.
HELUS: I try to keep an unbiased opinion on him. Granted we have embellishers in the military, we have them in the civilian world that try to, I guess, tell a story of their war medals and, you know, their time in combat. We have the same thing in — I assume you as journalists have the same in yours.
The fact is that, you know, Mr. Williams wasn’t in or near our aircraft at the time. It saddens me that you have so many other combat journalists out there that are in that type of situation. You know, seeing those things happen. More than likely, they probably don’t tell the story like that, you know, with embellishment.
STELTER: Mr. Helus, thank you for being with us this morning.
HELUS: Thank you.
STELTER: And Brian Williams says what happened was an innocent series of mistakes. So where was he that day? Well, he was on board another chopper in Iraq. He was taking a risk by being embedded with the troops. He was not on the chopper that was hit. That’s according to the soldiers on board that chopper, as you heard from Mr. Helus.
So, now, for his first TV interview, a pilot of Williams’ chopper is speaking out. His name is Chief Allen Kelly and he joined me earlier from Minneapolis.
STELTER: Chief Allen Kelly, thanks for joining me.
CHIEF ALLEN KELLY, PILOTED CHINOOK WITH WILLIAMS ON BOARD: Well, thank you for having me.
STELTER: Is it right to say Brian Williams was aboard your helicopter and not aboard the helicopter shot at in Iraq that day?
KELLY: That’s correct. He was aboard my aircraft that day in March.
STELTER: What was your aircraft doing? And was it ever within sight of the Chinook that was shot at?
KELLY: My aircraft along with my — the Chook one, I was Chook two in the flight of two Chinooks. We were carrying bridge pieces to the Euphrates. We were afraid they were going to blow the bridges and we wanted to make sure 3rd ID had the capability of crossing the Euphrates.
As far as Chinook that was shot down, we were not within visual range of them. They would have to be almost on top of us with the sandstorm we were flying through in order to get up there.
STELTER: So, what sort of distance was there between your helicopter with Brian Williams aboard and the helicopter that did take fire?
KELLY: Well, that would be difficult to ascertain. We both took off in separate cereals. The Big Windy crew my understanding two aircraft and they hooked up with their loads ahead of us. So, initially, we were probably a half hour behind them. But with the sandstorms, the weather we ran into, we had to slow up. I’m sure they did as well. So, it’s anybody’s guess the exact distance but I’d say probably somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes.
STELTER: Do you think it’s possible that Williams and his crew thought they were being shot at? Is there anything that happened on your flight that made it seem like there was an attack?
KELLY: Anything is possible. They are sitting in the back. I don’t remember if they were hooked up on headsets or not and could hear what was going on. We had a lot of stuff going on in the radios. We had a couple of aircraft that were calling for help, being shot down, Big Windy being one of them.
So, Mr. Williams in the back, he’s free to look out the windows back there. He wouldn’t see much. If he was on headsets and heard radio calls over guard, it’s possible he could have thought that, I suppose.
STELTER: Yes, and I do want to give him and his crew the benefit of the doubt here, but since you’ve heard the apology he issued on air, how do you feel about this entire situation, these exaggerations? Are you personally offended by it?
KELLY: I don’t make any judgments on that. Everybody has to live with the life they choose to lead. I was there to do a job, part of a volunteer army. I did my job. Part of that mission was to carry Mr. Williams and his crew with him up to be objective rams.
If he made mistakes — I mean, we’re all human. But I make no judgments on him in that regard.
STELTER: Chief Kelly, thank you for sharing what you remember from that day. I appreciate it.
KELLY: It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
STELTER: NBC has not responded to my request for comment about these soldiers’ accounts but NBC investigators have been in touch with Helus and Kelly as part of an effort to fact check what happened.
Now, next, this question: is another storm heading toward Mr. Williams? With the media scrutinizing every detail in his reporting from Iraq, some journalists are asking did he also exaggerate his stories from Hurricane Katrina. General Russel Honore joins me on that, next.
STELTER: On Wednesday, Brian Williams apologized for misremembering what happened to him in Iraq. By Thursday, the Internet was abuzz with allegations of another embellishment from the NBC anchor. This time, it was about hurricane Katrina.
Right now, there is no clear proof that Williams exaggerated or lied about his experiences there, but NBC is reviewing his accounts. Williams once said that he watched a man commit suicide at the Superdome, and he also said this —
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAMS: When you look out of your hotel room window in the French quarter and watch a man float by face down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and swore to yourself you would never see in your country. I accidentally ingested floodwater, I became very sick with dysentery, our hotel was overrun with gangs. I was rescued in the stairwell of a five-star hotel in New Orleans.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: Hurricane Katrina was an American horror story. But is it possible that Williams actually saw a body floating there?
Nobody knows Katrina by my next guest. He’s Lieutenant General Russel Honore who led Task Force Katrina.
Thank you for joining me this morning.
LT. GEN. RUSSEL HONORE (RET), U.S. ARMY: Good morning.
STELTER: The account that Brian Williams describes, he’s describing the Ritz Carlton Hotel, that’s on the edge of the French Quarter, right? Is it possible there was enough water in that part of New Orleans that a body could float by.
HONORE: Very suspect but anything is possible, Brian. You know, there are many stories from Katrina, and everybody have their story from where they stood.
More than likely that happened on Tuesday from looking at date times when he filed that report. For a brief moment, there might have been some water that could have possibly got than high around the Ritz Carlton. But, by and large, that water there was well below knee level around Ritz Carlton.
STELTER: Did you yourself ever come across bodies in that part of the city?
HONORE: There was a body in Superdome. I arrived, I was in Biloxi on Tuesday and in New Orleans at 9:47 at on Wednesday morning of Katrina, there was a body on Wednesday, just as you come off the ramp at the Superdome. I stayed there at the Superdome for about five days, about 18 hours a day. But that’s the only body I saw in that particular area of New Orleans. We had that body immediately removed.
STELTER: I just — I don’t want to dance around this. Do you think he has overstated his role in his experience in New Orleans?
HONORE: I think the thing that gives the story suspect is he violated one of the rules of old soldier’s war stories. That is you tell war stories about the adventures of others that you observe. Many of his war stories are about him. He became a part of the story.
That being said, the majority of my time in New Orleans, when we were not actually giving orders, supervising orders, was going around telling the American people that breaking news that they had heard, that had been reported on national television, was not true, such as someone blew the levee, that we had snipers operating, that there was rape and murder happening in the Superdome and convention center.
So, breaking news sometimes broke without being corroborated by other sources.
STELTER: There was a lot of misinformation. I think still to this day, folks still don’t understand what happened with the levee, you know? There was real problems at the levees and this was in some way manmade disasters. There’s still misunderstanding.
We should give Brian Williams credit, shouldn’t we, that he was there, that he was in New Orleans for the —
HONORE: Absolutely. I’ll tell you what he beat me —
HONORE: He was in New Orleans before I got there.
HONORE: I would like him to just verify. Yes, if he was a newsman and saw a body floating by his hotel, why didn’t he go grab it? Why didn’t he get somebody and report it.
STELTER: You mean, grab a camera.
HONORE: So, you can immediately remove those reasons.
Right, grab a camera. Either report it, which you’re supposed to do or as a human being go out and try to assist that person or get somebody.
The other thing is the gangs. There was a lot of reports, and one of his reports was about gangs. That reported in New Orleans you would think the city was under siege. While there were some reports, some shootings happened, much of that has been exaggerated and has been confirmed by not only local reporters but reporters from other parts of the country.
STELTER: Lieutenant General, thank you for joining me here.
HONORE: Good way.
STELTER: Let me know what you think about this story. I’ve been looking at your tweets on Twitter and your comments on Facebook. My username is BrianStelter on both sides.
When we come back, the big question now, will Brian Williams return to anchor chair from self-imposed benching. He says he will but should he and can he? We’ll look at those key questions when we come back.
STELTER: Welcome back.
Brian Williams is the most watched news anchor in the United States, but he will not be in his anchor chair tomorrow after a self-imposed leave of absence. But the big question everybody is asking, I mean everybody in the TV industry, is will he ever sit in that chair again?
Some people at NBC have been asking me that question. They’ve been texting, they’ve been G-chatting.
The thing is, Williams made it clear in his statement yesterday. He says he will be back. But several people I trust at NBC, high-ranking people, acknowledge it’s quite possible he will not. No one really knows. The top anchor at another network pointed out to me overnight that literally nobody knows the answer right now. It’s like there’s a finger in the air trying to figure it out.
So, I’m going to ask some of the greatest minds in media right now.
Jeff Greenfield, a TV veteran, a columnist for The Daily Beast and a contributor to the “PBS NewsHour,” Frank Fresno, a former D.C. bureau chief for CNN, director for the G.W. University School of Media and Public Affairs, and Kimberly Dozier, a former correspondent for CBS News, now a CNN contributor.
Thank you all.
And, Kimberly, let me start with you as someone who has been on multiple tours in Iraq, reporting there, embedded there. Do you think this could be a career-ending offense for Brian Williams?
KIMBERLY DOZIER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think what he has to do is reach back in his mind and remember what actually happened.
I wrote a book about our team getting hit by a car bomb. I interviewed afterwards everyone who had been at the scene to try to piece together what actually happened. It was amazing that there were two soldiers who were both convinced that they threw the one red smoke grenade that brought rescuers to our location.
Talk to either of them and they will swear to you it was them. Actually, I finally found a medic later who said, no, each of them thought they were throwing it, but in the end, they got in a fight with each other and someone else had to throw smoke grenade. They don’t seem to remember that.
Memories under stress are plastic. And over time, when you look back, things that you thought you remembered really well, they start to get fuzzy around the edges. He could make a virtue out of excavating, exploring and then reporting that.
STELTER: Earlier I this week, interviewed a pilot who said he was the one that had Brian Williams aboard his aircraft. Turns out he did not. So, I know exactly what you’re talking about there. And we have to be careful, I think, in reporting and in talking about this story.
Jeff, do you think it’s possible that Brian Williams innocently made a series of memory mistakes?
JEFF GREENFIELD, THE DAILY BEAST: I think it’s possible.
But what has struck me in this whole story is that one of the beliefs of people who really are hostile to mainstream media, that the wagons get circled and the elite protect their own, boy, has that not happened. This goes to the question of, can he survive?
You see things like “The New Yorker” magazine, sort of ground zero of coastal liberalism, with almost savage satire on him. Maureen Dowd’s column in “The New York Times” today has very tough things to say.
And what has struck me about this is that with a few exceptions, Dan Rather, Joe Klein of “TIME” magazine, there has not been any notion of giving Williams the benefit of the doubt. I’m not talking about places like “The New York Post,” which for whom schadenfreude in something like this is a given…
GREENFIELD: … but in the people you have talked to at the networks, legacy media, who don’t seem to feel that there’s any chance that there’s a relatively OK explanation.
What Kimberly Dozer said — and this is somebody who almost lost her life in combat — it’s one of the few things you hear about this — that the general belief or the general impression given even by the elite media is this guy is a fabulist, at best. And that, I think, is what he has to overcome if he’s to survive.
STELTER: You mentioned Joe Klein. Let me read from his column that he wrote a couple of days ago.
He said: “I find the phenomenon of the schadenfreude circus that has erupted yet again to be overwrought and unnecessarily brutal.” He went on to say: “And the judgments about whether Williams should be fired, from pundits who never saw the inside of a Chinook helicopter,” he finds those self-righteous and gagging.
I do wonder, Frank — and I do want to go to you on this — none of us are individually carrying pitchforks. But is it possible that simply the collective amount of saturation coverage of this causes a bunch of pitchforks to be up in the air?
FRANK SESNO, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: Well, here you are 33 minutes into your broadcast and this is what you have been doing. And this is taking place on other networks and it’s taking place across the Internet. That is the world we live in.
And the silence from NBC has been deafening and the silence from Williams’ defenders has been deafening. And the investigation, whatever it is and whatever shape it takes, from NBC and from all the bloggers and others who are already investigating Brian Williams are going to be investigating for other places where he has misspoken or exaggerated, not for other places where he’s done great journalism.
As time passes, this becomes more difficult. And you’re right. This big, giant media maw out there is at work now. And we see it with politicians. We see it with people in the entertainment industry. We see it with people in sports and elsewhere. When there’s a big, outsized personality and something comes along that counters the prevailing narrative and is a surprise or a scandal or something, people jump on.
And then it becomes — takes on a dynamic all its own.
STELTER: Kim, I have about 30 seconds left.
Is this the natural outcome of a star-making television system that has to build its anchors up to be more than mere reporters, but stars and celebrities?
DOZIER: Well, I think it’s the natural outcome of having gone through something fairly traumatic and then retelling it over the years, and it changes, and then getting called out.
Remember, Hillary Clinton had a similar experience when she said that she was fired on when she landed in Bosnia. And then CBS News pulled out the video and proved that wasn’t true.
Well, who is to say that’s not how she remembered it? Stress does funny things. This is what Brian Williams now has to figure out and really share with all of us before he can go on.
STELTER: Kim, thank you for being here.
Jeff, Frank, please stick around.
I’m going to take a quick break, because even before this Brian Williams mess, NBC was suffering from a series of high-profile blunders. The question is, is this a case of systemic failure at the network? More of my reporting right after this.
STELTER: We are talking about Brian Williams, his embellishments about his Iraq War mission in 2003.
And this is surely the biggest controversy NBC News has faced recently, but it’s also certainly not the only one. And it’s hurting something NBC values more than anything, more than all of us in journalism value more than anything, trust.
Check out these promos that ran just two months ago for Brian Williams’ 10th anniversary in the anchor chair.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It’s a thing you build slowly over time. It can happen during big moments. More often, it’s the day-to-day things. And what you build if you work hard enough, if you respect it, is a powerful thing called trust.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
STELTER: It says, he’s been there, he will be there. He renewed his contract in December. It goes almost through the end of the decade.
Now, let’s be honest. CNN makes mistakes. I make mistakes. NBC, ABC, CBS, they all make mistakes. But is there something more here?
Well, I’m back now with veteran journalists Jeff Greenfield and Frank Sesno.
And, Frank, let me ask you first, you’re aware of some of the other corrections that NBC has had to make recently, one involving whether Bowe Bergdahl is going to be charged with desertion, one involving the Paris attacks at “Charlie Hebdo.”
What do you think? Do you think there’s something systemic at NBC that is causing this series of embarrassing errors along the way?
We say that great news organizations need great editors, they need great producers, they need great people in charge. Another way of putting it is, we need adult supervision. And I think one of the real problems that we have in media generally and television in particular is that you get these outsized characters, these outsized profiles, Brian Williams on “30 Rock,” Brian Williams on “David Letterman.”
And you have a fundamental conflict of interests here, because your interest there is to build up your own personality, your own brand, when the brand of the organization and the network needs to be just what they are trying to promote, which is trust.
There’s only so many hours in a day. So there has to be great editing. There has to be great leadership. And NBC has been churning. And, you know, you have to conclude that the sorts of things that you’re talking about reflect that churn at some level.
STELTER: Jeff, let me put a tweet on screen from Bill Moyers. He’s linking to a colleague of his, what he wrote online yesterday. It says: “Brian Williams helicopter lie is nothing compared to the misinformation spewed by U.S. press in lead-up to Iraq War.”
Jeff, there’s been a lot of jokes saying Brian Williams is being the only one punished for lies involving Iraq. Is there some truth to the idea that we’re focusing so much on this and ignoring some of those bigger issues?
GREENFIELD: Yes, there’s a great irony here that one of the legitimate, many legitimate critiques of the media is that they tend to focus much more on, say, personalities in a political campaign than more fundamental issues.
And certainly, if you compare the damage, apart from the damage done to NBC, from Brian Williams’ misstatements or lies or whatever they are compared to what the consequences were of bad, or inaccurate or negligent reporting in the run-up to the war in Iraq, it’s geometric. It’s an enormous gap.
There’s one other quick point I think that is worth making, and that is that one of the reasons that Brian is in trouble is, he — this fits a familiar narrative of on outsized personality who may not be what they want us to think they are, for instance, the liberal who votes for school busing and sends his kids to private school, the war hawk with five draft deferments, the environmentalist who flies a private jet to a climate change rally, the moral — traditional moralist who procures an abortion for his mistress.
In this sense, what I’m getting at is, it was very important for NBC to paint Brian Williams — and this is true of a lot of people in the news business — as someone who hasn’t forgotten his roots.
STELTER: Jeff, are you calling Brian Williams a fraud?
GREENFIELD: No, what I’m saying is — but what I’m saying is, this has given the opening to people to call him a fraud.
STELTER: The Huffington Post has been calling him lying Brian. And that’s the problem. That’s what this has opened this up to.
GREENFIELD: Before we go, each of you, give me a one-sentence answer. Do you think Brian Williams will be back in his anchor chair ever?
SESNO: Are you asking me?
STELTER: Sure. I’m sorry. It’s Frank first.
SESNO: Do I think — my one-sentence answer is, we don’t know.
It depends — semicolon, it depends where this investigation leads. It’s just too much up in the air right now.
STELTER: And Jeff?
GREENFIELD: Yes, it’s a sentence journalists should say more often: I don’t know.
STELTER: You know, I had an NBC employee say to me on Thursday, Brian Williams is too big to fail. And now it’s Sunday, and it doesn’t feel like it’s necessarily true anymore. But, as we’re saying, none of us know the answer to this.
Jeff and Frank, thank you both for being here.
SESNO: Thanks, Brian.
GREENFIELD: Thank you.
STELTER: People on Twitter are asking, what about the other NBC employees who were in that chopper? I have been asking that, too. We have been trying to reach them. So far, NBC has not allowed them to speak and describe what actually happened.
We’re going to pause here, stay on the Brian Williams story.
We will take a turn coming up to Bruce Jenner, an Olympic hero, now supermarket magazine fodder, and just yesterday, a deadly car crash. With speculation ongoing about his gender transition, I have a guest standing by who knows what Jenner is going through, and she will join me next.
STELTER: Welcome back.
Yesterday, Bruce Jenner was involved in a horrific four-car accident in Malibu, California. It left one person dead and five others injured.
The former Olympic gold medalist and more recently a Kardashian reality TV star walked away from the crash unharmed. And now the L.A. County sheriff is launching a vehicular manslaughter criminal investigation.
There are reports that Jenner has told his lawyer that he was being chased by paparazzi. And while we don’t know that to be true, we do know Jenner has been in the spotlight for months, with speculation running rampant that Jenner is transitioning from a man to a woman.
And all the speculation and gossip and innuendo, well, it has made his photograph the most wanted image in Hollywood.
Joining me now near the crash site is CNN’s Sara Sidner.
Sara, what’s the best information we have about the presence of paparazzi at the scene?
SARA SIDNER, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We were listening to a lieutenant who was talking to us about whether or not the paparazzi had any hand in this.
And their reaction was, there is no indication at this time that Bruce Jenner was trying to escape from the paparazzi or doing any sort of maneuver to get away from the paparazzi, but, however, that the paparazzi was likely there.
And if you look at some of the pictures that’s come out from the scene, you can see that there were people definitely taking pictures of him, because they have a picture of before the crash, while the crash is happening, and after the crash happened. And it was a horrific crash.
When you see these pictures, you can see the car that Bruce Jenner, according to police, hit from behind and pushed into oncoming traffic, which was then hit by a Hummer. The person in that car, a woman, we’re told by the coroner, was killed.
And, as you mentioned, seven people headed to the hospital because of this very, very bad accident. But, right now, according to officials, there is no vehicular manslaughter case being looked at. It is simply a traffic accident with a fatality.
We are hearing officially that is the word from the sheriff’s department this morning. I just checked with them. However, they are still investigating this case, trying to figure out exactly what the sequence of events were, but several cars involved in this. One of them got the brunt of it, killing the driver — Brian.
STELTER: Sara, that’s important. So there is no criminal investigation ongoing at this moment?
SIDNER: At this moment, we’re told. And this is the official word.
SIDNER: And there is a lot — as you know, this town has a lot of sources and there’s always a lot of rumors going on.
But, officially, right now, we are told it is just a traffic incident that had a fatality. But there is still an open investigation right now into what happened exactly at the scene — Brian.
STELTER: Got it.
Sara, thanks very much.
You’re describing rumors that happened in legal context. Well, there are many, many in entertainment contexts.
Gossip magazines have been claiming Bruce Jenner is transitioning from male to female for a while now. Take a look at this controversial cover this “In Touch” magazine. It Photoshopped lipstick onto Bruce Jenner and put his head on actress Stephanie Beacham’s body.
And with reports that Jenner is documenting his transition for a reality TV show, this possibility is getting a lot of media coverage.
I want to bring in someone who knows firsthand what it is like when the media takes a very private matter and turns it into a very public spectacle.
Renee Richards made headlines when she won the right to play professional tennis as a woman after having gender reassignment surgery in 1975. We can see her in these photos. She went on to coach some tennis greats. And she’s now an eye surgeon and also the author of “Spy Night and Other Memories: A Collection of Stories from Dick and Renee.”
Renee, thank you for being here.
RENEE RICHARDS, AUTHOR, “SPY NIGHT AND OTHER MEMORIES”: Thank you, Brian, for having me.
STELTER: I’m trying to imagine what Bruce Jenner might be going through. He hasn’t said anything publicly. I find myself wondering if I should use — which pronoun I should use, he or she, given that the photos seem to be significant evidence.
Do you think this should be fair game for journalists before he says something publicly about it?
RICHARDS: Well, from a personal standpoint, I would say no, because I was very upset when I went through my transformation and tried to do it privately, as was done in those days, so-called woodworking.
And I moved 3,000 miles away, changed my name. And then I was outed when I played in a tennis tournament and won it in La Jolla, and forever after, I was a household word. So, from my standpoint, yes, I don’t think the public has any right to know.
But, on the other hand, Bruce Jenner is a quasi-public figure. And tens of millions of people know about him and his family. And I would think it would be almost impossible for him to keep almost anything that he’s doing, especially like an eventual coming sex change operation, to keep it private
STELTER: Especially considering that he’s apparently producing a — or working on a reality show about this.
STELTER: That could be a really important educational moment for viewers. Right?
RICHARDS: Well, I don’t know. I suppose it might.
There is a lot now going on in terms of education of the public about people who have the transgender condition. But anything new and forthright and correct would be helpful. And coming from somebody like Bruce Jenner, who was an Olympic decathlon champion, I think it would count for something.
STELTER: Do you think there’s anything you would like to tell him at this moment, when he’s maybe preparing to do his first television interview? There’s rumors that Diane Sawyer will be talking to him shortly.
RICHARDS: I think it would be preposterous for me to try to advise Bruce Jenner. And…
STELTER: But, based on your experience in the ’70s, nothing that you would take away from that for him?
RICHARDS: I learned my lesson when, every time a transgender athlete tried to compete in his or her sport, I would get the call from all over the world to give my opinion on it.
And I gave one once about a Canadian mountain biker. And I said, I didn’t think that she should play on the national team, but maybe she would just play in club events — in bike and club events. And the headline in the Canadian newspaper the next day was, “Doc says, do as I say, not as I do.”
STELTER: The press has a warping effect sometimes. It can be troubling.
Renee, thank you for being here. It’s good talking with you. Thank you.
RICHARDS: Thank you, Brian. Pleasure.
STELTER: We will take a quick break, but we will be back with more RELIABLE SOURCES in just a moment.
STELTER: We are all out of time here on RELIABLE SOURCES.
But we have lots more news on CNN.com, including BuzzFeed’s first interview with President Obama. And we will be covering the Brian Williams controversy all week long, CNNMoney.com/media.
I will see you right here next week.
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