(CNSNews.com) -- During the National Conference of the Society of Professional Journalists on Sept. 10, 2004, NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams stressed that “integrity…is all we have” as broadcast journalists, adding that anything aired on NBC’s primetime news show is painstakingly combed through for errors and that the network “broadcast[s] no word before its time.”
During the conference, Williams, who at the time was preparing to take over NBC Nightly News for then-anchor Tom Brokaw, shared a stage with journalism legend and former CBS Evening News host Walter Cronkite. The veteran journalist and the new primetime anchor discussed the future of the broadcast news industry and the ethics of reporting.
“When you create a story at NBC Nightly News, when I sit down to write copy for air, I assign it, in the computer, a ‘one.’ It then goes through a series of traps, where writers and senior editors assign it a ‘two,’ ‘three,’ ‘four,’ and then it is ‘x’ed by the executive producer. No item can be read on the air without carrying an ‘x,’” explained Williams.
“If it needs to be amended, I go back into the document and see what they’ve done to my…poetry, really,” Williams added, to the amusement of the audience.
“I joke, but this is how we make sure -- and we, we toil and sometimes argue and fuss and fight over every word that goes out over the air. It’s…this is what we do. Talk about integrity. This is all we have,” he claimed.
“If people think you can just slap-dash, come up with something, slap it on the air for an audience of 13, 14 million people and go home, and punch out at 7:01:30, they’re mistaken,” he said.
“We broadcast no word before its time,” Williams remarked.
Earlier in the conversation, Betsy Ashton, the board member with the Society of Professional Journalists who conducted the interview, introduced Williams as the next anchor of NBC’s evening news show, explaining that he was one of the first journalists to report from Baghdad, Iraq, during the early days in the Iraq War.
“He was traveling on a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter mission when the lead helicopter was shot down by rocket-propelled grenade fire,” she explained to audience members.
But the story Ashton told is far different from the one Williams would tell in later years, where he claimed he was actually riding in the helicopter that was struck by an RPG during the mission before being forced to make an emergency landing in the Iraqi desert. It’s a claim Williams has made repeatedly over the years, including in an appearance on CBS’s The Late Show with David Letterman on Mar. 26, 2013, where he said, “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire including the one I was in.”
Williams’ story of journalistic heroism was debunked last week by Stars and Stripes, a publication covering military news, as well as by a piece published in the New York Post by the pilot who flew the helicopter Williams was riding in.
Since then, Williams has apologized for his “mistake.”
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” he wrote to Stars and Stripes. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”