A Veteran’s Perspective on Brian Williams’ Conflation of the Facts

Written by Kris Jensen, ACE; follow @krisjensen or connect with him on LinkedIn

Buzz around Brian Williams’ “conflation” of the truth is everywhere — ending Tuesday in a six-month suspension by NBC without pay.

How did we get to the point where one of the most trusted and influential news anchors in our digital age has made a decision that seriously impacted his credibility?

The most basic answer — the controversy was created by the very source who claimed it to be true: Brian Williams.

The controversy stems from inconsistencies in Williams’ reporting on an incident involving the forced landing of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in Iraq in March 2003. Williams was riding in one of four helicopters delivering supplies ahead of U.S. ground invasion forces and his aircraft was forced to land along with the others when one of the Chinooks in the group took a direct hit from an RPG and AK-47 fire.

Williams’ own reporting in March 2003 had the story correct. But 10 years later his story changed to state that his own helicopter had taken the RPG hit.

In an interview he gave to David Letterman in March 2013, he recalls clearly the speed and altitude of the aircraft, the payload they were hauling and the infantry division they were supplying. These specific details make that much more dubious that he would confuse whether his aircraft was shot down in the Iraqi desert.

I want to give the benefit of the doubt to Williams, and I am in no way calling him a liar in this post. But as a military veteran who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003-04, and has served as a messaging and media strategist in the more than 10 years since, I struggle to swallow his explanation of the inconsistencies.

I can recall clearly every combat mission I was a part of — both the monotonous moments and the terrifying ones. I’m not confused about what happened to me versus a fellow soldier. I know the difference between what I saw or participated in and what I was only told about.

My time in Iraq preceded my time as a public relations strategist. Williams, on the other hand, was already a trusted newsman when he went to the war zone. He knew he was there on behalf of a national news outlet to document stories of soldiers in action. So it’s is harder for me to understand how a professional of his stature could have such a memory fail.

For a media icon like Williams this is no ordinary SNAFU. Williams is a professional storyteller, and the value of his tradecraft is based on the years of trustworthiness he’s established with a national audience.

And just like a soldier, he’s no good to his unit if he can’t shoot straight.

So how would a military veteran suggest that Williams should have handled the immediate aftermath?

Williams should have jumped on the grenade.

A lie, confusing the details over time or conflating the truth — whatever we call it, Williams created a storm of trouble for NBC when he was caught telling a fictional version of history. Like a soldier who pulls the pin on a grenade and fumbles it while trying to throw, there was a narrow window in which to take action to minimize damage once the lie was realized.

Williams could have immediately called it a lie and taken ownership, effectively jumping on the grenade to spare his squad. Instead, he hesitated, and the explosive repercussions of his actions have inflicted reputational damage beyond his own life and career.

Williams is a very genuine reporter whose on-air persona is charming and reassuring. But if the public thinks he lied and he sticks with the “conflating the helicopters” argument, his long-term credibility is gone and NBC is forced into a tough decision, which it ultimately made this week.

Unfortunately, instead of jumping on the grenade, Williams opted for a strategic retreat.

There are times when your mission falls apart and you must make the tough decision to make a strategic retreat in order to preserve the opportunity to win the larger objective. This appears to be what Williams is doing. Once he recognized the trouble he caused NBC he “temporarily” stepped down as a reporter (as of Saturday). Then the final blow: the NBC six-month suspension.

We don’t know is if this was a failure of Williams’ memory or his integrity.

What we do know is that over time his account of that day in March 2003 morphed from a relatively benign story into one that had him harrowingly close to death in the Iraqi desert. If this was an intentional lie, it would be better for Williams to make a full confession and begin the long process of mounting a comeback rather than get entrenched in a losing position and never be able to regain the public’s trust.

After all, the benefit of a strategic retreat is only that it buys you time to regroup and mount a second offensive.

If Williams doesn’t rethink his strategy and fully embrace ownership of the situation he may not get a second chance to sway the American public.

Tunheim is a an expert in helping clients protect their reputation. Learn how our crisis communications and issues management practice can navigate your next complex challenge.

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