Brian Williams admitted this week that, contrary to previous claims, he was not aboard a helicopter that was grounded by rocket grenades during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But he’s not the first public figure who has been caught stretching the truth.
The beloved anchor’s confession — that the harrowing story he and NBC News had repeated multiple times since 2003 was not true —has prompted an investigation by the network and called Williams’ other reporting, such as his Hurricane Katrina coverage, into question. This weekend Williams, who is managing editor of the NBC Nightly News, announced that he’d be temporarily taking himself off the air.
Williams’ apology, in which he insisted he’d “misremembered” the details of the events, prompted comparisons to Hillary Clinton, who came down with her own case of the misrememberings while on the campaign trail in 2008.
In a speech, as well as a number of interviews, the then-presidential candidate recalled having to run from sniper fire with her daughter, Chelsea, upon arriving in war-torn Bosnia in 1996. It was a dramatic anecdote, and one that seemed to back up the foreign policy experience Clinton said she’d gained during her eight years as first lady. That story also, however, raised some eyebrows from the media, and it wasn’t long before video of the Bosnia trip was unearthed to counter Clinton’s account.
“I remember landing under sniper fire,” Clinton had said of the Bosnia trip during a campaign speech in Washington. “There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”
Yet the video showed a much calmer version of events, with Clinton and her daughter walking from their plane to a tension-free ceremony on the tarmac. When confronted with the inconsistencies, Clinton said:
“So I made a mistake. That happens. It proves I’m human, which, you know, for some people is a revelation.”
Then-Sen. Barack Obama used the Bosnia embellishment to challenge his Democratic opponent’s foreign policy experience. And while Clinton went on to lose the nomination, the scandal didn’t prevent Obama from appointing her secretary of state once he was elected.
Former Sen. Tom Harkin was caught, not once but twice, in his own campaign-trail yarn. First during his 1984 Senate run and again while making a bid for the 1992 Democratic presidential nomination, the details of Harkin’s military service were scrutinized.
Although Harkin, a Navy vet, had previously claimed to have spent a year in Vietnam as a combat pilot, a skeptical Wall Street Journal eventually got Harkin to admit that he was never stationed in Vietnam during the war, but rather in Japan, and occasionally flew recently repaired aircraft on test missions in and out of the embattled country. Harkin did not make it past the 1992 Democratic primaries, losing to fresh-faced Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. But his career was hardly over. He retired this year after three decades in the Senate.
Clinton and Harkin are just two in a long history of politicians who’ve exaggerated — or flat-out lied — about their war experience. In fact, some might consider it a political tradition. And as history has showed, being outted for such transgressions may cost you an election, but it’s not necessarily a career killer. Sen. Mark Kirk and former presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan are other survivors of fabricated heroism.
Unfortunately for Williams, he is not a politician but a journalist — his profession is one in which lying is still, technically, frowned upon. And unlike the politicos mentioned above, the most notorious liars in journalism are best known for the their career-ruining fabrications. Jayson Blair resigned from the New York Times in disgrace after his tangled web of plagiarized and fabricated stories was exposed. Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer Prize was revoked when the subject of Cooke’s award-winning Washington Post article, an 8-year-old heroin addict named Jimmy, turned out to be a figment of her imagination. Stephen Glass is still haunted by the ghosts of fabricated sources, as his well-documented reign as The New Republic’s most egregious scam artist not only ousted him from journalism but has proven a roadblock to his pursuit of a law career.
Whether Williams will manage to escape this disaster unscathed remains to be seen.