Brian Williams’ “Chinookgate” Spawns Crisis For NBC News, Zelig-Style Comedy On Twitter

By Jeremy Gerard, Lisa de Moraes

UPDATED with more details: Industry execs continue to ruminate whether Brian Williams will survive the Chinook blunder that has put in question his future as managing editor of NBC News and anchor of its flagship broadcast. This morning, when tongues were wagging about last night’s on-air apology — for which the industry gave him barely passable grades — the betting line was that he would not be long for the job. But, as the day wore on and more reports came in about how events played out in that 2003 attack in Iraq,  more industry sources were speculating they thought the controversy was survivable, if barely.

“It’s probably survivable, because they have no alternative — no heir apparent — but the credibility of the news organization? This goes a long way to ripping it apart,” one industry analyst forecast.

“Anyone else, a correspondent, producer, reporter at NBC News who took [his now-discredited] story on to his broadcast would not be employed today,” one industry analyst said. “If that person, sitting across from the anchor we all believe Brian Williams to be” had given the explanation Williams himself gave last night, “Brian, in his capacity as interviewer and tough-question asker, would have ripped it up, would have ripped it to shreds.”

As Deadline first reported, Dan Rather — who knows a thing or two about being at the center of a media storm — has come out in support of colleague Brian Williams:

“I don’t know the particulars  about that day in Iraq,” says the former CBS Evening News anchor. “I do know Brian. He’s a longtime friend and we have been in a number of war zones and on the same battlefields, competing but together. Brian is an honest decent man, an excellent reporter and anchor — and a brave one. I can attest that — like his predecessor Tom Brokaw — he is a superb pro, and a gutsy one.”

Whether that support will help Williams remains to be seen. Nobody circles the wagons and shuts down communication like a news organization in crisis. NBC News has gone into lockdown while deciding the future of the NBC Nightly News anchor in the wake of a blunder that has put his future in question at the network’s flagship broadcast. (It also comes just a short while after Williams was forced to make an embarrassing on-air apology for the network’s misreporting of the Paris attack on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo.)

“There’s a certain degree of Rick Perry about this — Oops! There are many things in life that can be confusing. But confusion about whether or not you were on a helicopter that crashed? That’s a tough one.” — ethics specialist Michael Shapiro

“It’s the era of radical transparency,” one TV news industry bigwig noted. For NBC News to have not anticipated the blowback on Facebook “is a generational thing,” an industry exec suggested. “I don’t understand how [Williams] doesn’t think it’s going to be known what happened,” the person marveled. Several industry execs noted that a close relationship with the military is part of Williams’ carefully honed image. “It’s well-known and part of his brand,” one insider said.

The circle of advisers around news division president Deborah Turness, who gifted Williams with a five-year contract extension in December and promised that he would have the anchor’s chair “for years to come,” is in zip-it mode, with not even a “No comment” emanating from NBCUniversal corporate public relations. (They did, however, mange to get out a press release touting the fact that the Today show Wednesday delivered its first ratings win in five months. You know, priorities and all.)

“There’s a certain degree of Rick Perry about this — Oops!,” said Michael Shapiro, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School Of Journalism and expert on journalistic ethics. “There are many thing in life that can be confusing. But confusion about whether or not you were on a helicopter that crashed? That’s a tough one. As someone who’s known people who have been on helicopters that crashed, I can tell you, they kind of knew it. And months after, they were still feeling the effects.”

None of this has stopped critics from demanding Williams’ head on a platter and the Twittersphere from having a field day at his expense. They’re using photo-manipulation apps that have made it easy for critics to show their skepticism, not to say downright contempt, for the mea culpa Williams offered up to viewers on Wednesday evening.

Williams admitted that he’d “bungled” his account of an incident while covering the Iraq invasion in 2003, a year before he was named as Tom Brokaw’s successor as anchor and managing editor of the program. At the time, he was embedded with a helicopter group, one of which was downed by a rocket-propelled grenade. In the intervening years, Williams said, the “constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two.”

That led to the birth of such hashtags as #BrianWilliamsMisremembers; #BrianWilliamsWarStories; #chopperwhopper and #brianwilliamsmemories. Legendary Philadelphia and Boston baseball pitcher Curt Schilling opined, “How on earth is this guy not fired?” Among the visuals offered up were these:

Among the first to conclude that Williams must go is David Zurawik, the well-regarded TV critic of the Baltimore Sun. “If credibility means anything to NBC News, Brian Williams will no longer be managing editor and anchor of the evening newscast by the end of the day Friday,” he wrote. “Really, if this was 10 or 15 years ago, an anchor at any network would be gone by Friday after an admission of such deception — especially when it is placed alongside the sacrifices made and pains suffered by military personnel and their families.…I can’t wait to see how the feckless NBC News handles this nightmare.”

NBC News is navigating a volatile situation. Thirteen journalists covering the war in Iraq died just in 2003, according to the Committee To Protect Journalists, and their colleagues are among those being slaughtered in the region today. Whether Williams’ “bungle” was an act of commission or conflation isn’t likely to matter much to their families or to viewers chastened by the ongoing images of the costs of these wars. How Turness and her team navigate this — and how Williams himself moves forward — will be a real test. We’ll do our best to keep you informed about how it goes because, all jokes aside, no one knows better than NBC News that this is no laughing matter.

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