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Social Media Keeps Up Pressure on NBC Over Brian Williams's 'Mistaken' Iraq Story

Critics challenge news anchor's explanation for his changing account of an Iraq helicopter incident.

Composite image by Re/code

NBC* has launched an internal investigation into “Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams’s first-hand account of a perilous Iraq helicopter crash that he has subsequently recanted, even as commentators turned to social media to criticize the high-profile newsman’s explanation that he had “conflated” the events of that day in 2003.

An internal staff memo sent Friday by NBC News President Deborah Turness said a team was “gathering the facts” to determine what had transpired, and is still considering “the best next steps.” A spokesperson did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Critics have turned to Twitter to lampoon Williams’s explanation that he had “misremembered” what had transpired more than a dozen years ago. The hashtag #BrianWilliamsMisremembered is attached to dozens of creative images that place the news anchor at the scene of such historic events as the Kennedy assassination, the sinking of the Titanic, Abraham Lincoln conferring with a general on the battlefield during the Civil War, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Bloggers have also begun questioning other reports from Williams, including his Hurricane Katrina coverage in which he recounted seeing a body float by his hotel in French Quarter. The Advocate had reported that the historic New Orleans neighborhood was never as flooded as other districts.

Digital media experts say the incident demonstrates the power of social media to hold prominent figures to account for their words and actions.

“When you talk about the democratization of the digital age, if people can speak their minds, and if they find a way to make it resonate with enough people or the right people, then they can force the issue to come to light,” said Karen North, director of USC’s Annenberg Program on Online Communities.

At issue is Williams’s account of a Chinook helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and was forced to make an emergency landing. The news anchor was in a helicopter traveling behind the aircraft that came under fire.

Williams initially provided an accurate on-air account of the incident. However, in subsequent retellings he placed himself in the helicopter grounded by enemy fire — including during a 2013 radio interview and an appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman.” He repeated the story last week, during NBC’s coverage of a public tribute at a New York Rangers hockey game for Sgt. Major Tim Terpak.

Angry veterans took to Facebook to challenge the news anchor’s exaggerated account, and their story was subsequently picked up by Stars and Stripes, according to the New York Times. Williams apologized on air Wednesday.

“I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” Williams said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

The incident jumped from what North dubbed the “laymen’s press” of social media to the mainstream media because it dealt with a crucial issue — the trustworthiness of one of the most recognizable figures in television news.

“The reason it’s important is it speaks to whether or not he can have that distinction of being one of the most trusted people or trusted sources of information in America,” said North. “That’s really the issue.”

Aram Sinnreich, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University, said social media has emerged as a populist form of fact-checking, in which everyday people can hold news organizations and public figures to account for the accuracy of their words. He wondered aloud whether Williams could lose his job.

“There’s a historical precedent, which is Dan Rather,” Sinnreich said. “We’re certainly in an era where beloved, established news anchors can lose their jobs for telling unsubstantiated versions of stories.”

The esteemed former CBS News anchor resigned in 2005, a year after the news magazine show “60 Minutes” aired a critical report of George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service based on documents whose authenticity was immediately challenged by bloggers.

*NBCUniversal is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Recode’s parent company.

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