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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

I’m pretty sure I’ve never been on a helicopter that was slammed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

If it happens in the future, and I live to tell the story, I bet I’ll remember it for a long, long time. Like forever. You would, too.

Heck, I still remember getting punched on a Broward school bus in seventh grade. Bus number 134 is my recollection.

A frigging rocket hole in a helicopter fuselage? I’d remember every terrifying millisecond of that landing. When it comes to preserving memory, fear works better than even ginkgo pills.

Brian Williams is off the air at NBC News because he said he was on a Chinook helicopter that got struck by an RPG in Iraq. It wasn’t true.

According to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, Williams was on a different chopper flying about an hour behind the one that was forced down. In other words, he was riding on a chopper that took off and landed uneventfully.

So Williams dramatically embroidered what happened back in 2003. Does he deserve the six-month suspension handed out last week by the network?

Absolutely. He’s lucky he wasn’t fired.

While there’s self-righteous gloating among some conservative pundits, this wasn’t a right-wing social-media assassination of the nation’s most popular and likable anchorman. This was a Ron Burgundy-style screwup by a very bright guy who knew better.

Everyone has told tall tales. The problem is that Williams told this one to millions of people more than once, and in the same staid tone with which he delivered the news every night.

He wasn’t sitting around a campfire with a few fishing buddies, lying about the size of a rainbow trout he caught. He wasn’t standing at the bar of his country club, lying about that birdie he didn’t really make on the 17th hole.

He was sitting in a chair next to David Letterman, for God’s sake, saying he got shot down in the Iraqi desert. This you can’t shrug off as a harmless macho yarn.

His account that night, and in other interviews, was much different from his reporting after the incident. When braced about it all these years later, Williams apologized and said he’d “conflated” the helicopter he was on with the chopper that was damaged by ground fire.

Conflate is a trendy word these days. It means to combine, meld or bring together. It does not mean “falsely altering the facts to aggrandize oneself.”

Americans are well aware of the show-business aspect of broadcast news, at all levels. During every hurricane, hordes of TV reporters get sent to the beach to stand dripping in the storm, telling us absolutely nothing we don’t already know. Gosh, look how windy it is!

For their anchors, networks have always sought (and heavily promoted) steady, recognizable news figures — Murrow, Cronkite, Brinkley, Brokaw, Sawyer, all household names in their prime and to this day.

Brian Williams is a household name, too. He was extremely good at his job, which he’d still have if he’d stuck to the news and kept himself out of it.

Journalists make mistakes, some careless and some hard to avoid. We’ve all gotten facts wrong, or been misled by sources. In this case, though, Williams was his own source, and the wrong fact enlarged his own role in the tale.

That he would repeat it is mystifying, for he surely knew that the crew of the shot-down helicopter might take notice. If it was a misfire of memory, as Williams has said, then it was epic — and disturbing, given his responsibilities.

NBC is investigating whether this was a pattern or an isolated instance. It will be difficult for Williams to recover.

Reporters aggressively go after politicians and other public figures who have fictionalized college degrees, service records or personal experiences. It happens fairly often.

Ronald Reagan once said he filmed Nazi concentration camps, though he never left California during World War II. Hillary Clinton once said she came under sniper fire in Bosnia, but the videotape tells a different story.

Seldom are we shocked speechless when a politician is caught exaggerating, or even making stuff up. However, Williams held a job with a mission, if not the promise, of accuracy.

Once a high-profile journalist starts telling war stories on Letterman, it becomes part of his or her professional résumé. The bottom line is that Williams now has a lie on his.

Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.

Photo: NBC News anchor Brian Williams speaks onstage at 2014 Stand Up For Heroes at Madison Square Garden at Madison Square Garden on November 5, 2014 in New York City (AFP/Andrew H. Walker)

  • The lucky one

    We let Reagan & Clinton slide on the lie the author identified because they were the least of the many lies Ronnie and Hilary had told. I’m sure we’ll have many more from Hil and Ron’s worshippers are still making up stories about him.

  • latebloomingrandma

    And yet Fox news can lie, distort, and aggrandize without consequences. Taken to court, they plead that they are “entertainment”, but many people consider them real news. Network news is called “lamestream”. (Thank you, Sarah, for this and the non-existent death panels that people believe in). Something is wrong with this double standard.

    • CrankyToo

      We expect lies to emanate from a propaganda machine, and in that regard we’re seldom disappointed by the prevaricating polecats at Fox Noise. But we expect more, as we should, from respectable news outlets.

      Brian Williams typifies the self-important, narcissistic news anchor. The airwaves are lousy with them. Were it not so, the fictional film character, Ron Burgundy would lack much of his comedic punch.

      I don’t see how Williams recovers from this. If I were him, I’d be too ashamed and humiliated to show my face in public, let alone on the evening news.

      • latebloomingrandma

        I disagree with your comment that we expect lies from a propaganda machine. I may expect lies, but i know many people who believe everything that comes from the Fox News channel as absolute truth.

        • CrankyToo

          C’mon Granny. When I said “we expect lies”, it should have been understood that I meant we sane, thinking individuals. If the knuckleheads who tune it to Fox Noise were cognizant of the fact that they were being spoonfed bullsh!t, they wouldn’t be listening to Fox, would they?

          • latebloomingrandma

            Oops! Misread the first time around. Didn’t have enough coffee yet.

          • CrankyToo

            No shame, Darlin’.

  • charleo1

    It’s not only Williams, who also edits the content of Nightly News for NBC.
    But the serious dererioration of network news in general over the past decade. Beginning most tellingly with the run up to the Iraqi War. (Catch latest addition of Bill Mahr for a great critique.) Original air date: 2/13/15. Try tuning in to Al Jazeera America, for what I think is very informative. IMHO.


    Brian would have done well to live by my codes below:

    I have always followed the advise of an old hand I worked for – he said :

    1) “Always try to do the right thing.”

    2) “Don’t ever lie”

    “Even thought we both have Masters Degrees neither of us is smart enough to lie”

    “You have to remember way too many lies on lies and how you covered them.”

    And for both 1 & 2 – “you always have to look over your shoulder to see which one is catching up with you.”

    “Case in Point” – RPG Helicopter Attack.

    This all reminds me of Hillary saying that “they” – she and Bill were “Broke” when he left office.

    Since I contributed money to her run for Pres I am qualified to comment on this.

    What a Crock – Seems to me she lost touch with what being broke really means.

    It does not mean your savings/net worth have dwindled down to several million vs 10’s of millions.

    For that reason, among others, I will not be voting for her again.

    Sometimes being honest has been somewhat painful and I never made their millions, but I have never had to worry about looking over my shoulder.

    Maybe its just me, but I am comfortable with that

  • Daniel Jones

    For the record, I agree. And every lying politician needs to be held to the same standard.

  • itsfun

    Wonder if Hillary will be held accountable for her statement about being shot at in Bosnia?