Brian Williams Scandal Shows Power of Social Media


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Brian Williams’s memories were easy to check against his reporting, which was widely available on YouTube.

The soldiers who prompted Brian Williams’s fall from one of the most powerful jobs in the media had first tried to blow the whistle on him in 2003.

But that was before the Internet became ubiquitous. And so, like most people who had a problem with the news, the soldiers had few options. A clip of Mr. Williams recounting a helicopter attack in Iraq had been broadcast by NBC, then dissipated into the ether.

So Joe Summerlin and some of the other soldiers involved in the incident, frustrated by what they viewed as a disingenuous presentation by Mr. Williams, did the only things they could easily do: They left futile notes of complaint in the news vans of rival networks, and, in a gesture of silent protest, made sure they switched channels when Mr. Williams appeared on their screens again.

Twelve years later, many more options were available, and Mr. Summerlin and his fellow soldiers were able to start a new breed of television scandal — one that began with their Facebook comments, was amplified by Twitter and reached a crescendo as amateur sleuths took to YouTube to fact-check Mr. Williams’s reporting.

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Twelve years ago, Christopher Simeone and others wanted to expose Brian Williams’s exaggerated recounting of a helicopter attack in Iraq. But all they could do was leave notes in the news vans of Mr. Williams’s competitors.

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Meggan Haller/Keyhole Photo for The New York Times

Once it started, it spread through social media with such heat and ferocity that it surprised many in the media — not least Mr. Williams, who did not seem to immediately grasp the danger he was in, according to a person who was present at NBC when the story broke, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity, describing a confidential discussion.

In February, Mr. Williams said he had “conflated” the two helicopters. He was suspended a few days later, and on Thursday was reassigned to a lesser role. On Friday, he appeared on television in a humbling interview with his colleague, Matt Lauer, talking about his misstatements.

Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism at New York University, who has studied the history of broadcast news, said that Mr. Williams fell into “an overall move towards a greater truth standard. It is just harder to get away with dissembling now.” Social media, he said, “is a great device for catching this stuff.”

Great anchors like Walter Cronkite were known for a marked difference between their on- and off-air personas, Mr. Stephens said. But that line has been blurred. “All of what people say gets recorded and therefore can be analyzed,” he said. “And these trends play against Brian Williams.”

The original clip of Mr. Williams recounting the helicopter episode had been made available online, along with thousands of others, by NBC. A clip of Mr. Williams exaggerating the story on “Late Show With David Letterman” in 2013 was uploaded innocently to YouTube.

Both lay dormant until NBC uploaded a later clip, earlier this year, of Mr. Williams recounting the story again on “NBC Nightly News,” to its Facebook page. It was, as the network hoped, a hit with many of those serving in the armed forces, and their families. But it also reached some of the soldiers who knew better and who, more than a decade earlier, had tried to inform the world that Mr. Williams’s story was not all it seemed. They commented.

“Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft,” Lance Reynolds, a flight engineer, wrote on Facebook. “I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened.” Mr. Reynolds and others who were involved said that Mr. Williams was on a trailing helicopter far from the one that was attacked.

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Joe Summerlin, one of the soldiers who objected to Mr. Williams’s characterization of events.

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Steve Hebert for The New York Times

A reporter for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, heard about the veterans’ protests, and Mr. Williams’s career as the anchorman of “NBC Nightly News” soon came to a halt.

There had been other scandals involving news anchors. At around the same time that Mr. Williams ascended to the anchor chair for NBC, in 2004, Dan Rather of CBS announced that he would step down after bloggers questioned the authenticity of documents he had pointed to as evidence of flaws in George W. Bush’s Vietnam-era service record.

But Mr. Williams’s situation was different, said Charles L. Ponce de Leon, the author of “That’s The Way It Is,” a history of television news. “So few television journalists were so publicly available as Brian Williams,” he said, referring to the appearances on late-night television, and the pressure for news anchors to engage with younger audiences wherever they could.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of the center for civic media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described a media environment “where many news stories begin with incidents on social media, and where everyone, including traditional newspapers,” had “learned how to use outrage to make stories go viral.” In that environment Mr. Williams’s transgression, and his imperfect first apology, “was almost bound to lead to a wave of public ridicule and shaming,” Mr. Zuckerman said.

Public trust in institutions of all kinds, he said, is at or near historic lows, a phenomenon that is well matched with the rise of social media. “We all want to be the first to know, and we’re inclined to believe — with good reason — that our figures of authority are lying to us,” he said. “It’s an ideal moment to burn down the career of a highly visible public figure. What better example of the age of mistrust could there be than a lying anchorman?”

For one of the soldiers involved in the helicopter incident in Iraq, Christopher Simeone, Mr. Williams’s reinstatement to a diminished on-air role, at MSNBC, was a disappointment, a sign that America had “rejected truth.”

“The reason that a lying newsman will make it back onto the TV sets of America,” Mr. Simeone wrote in an email message, “is because we have become comfortable living in an empire of lies.”

For those who aren’t comfortable, as Mr. Williams discovered, Facebook offers a way to fight back.



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