Brian Williams’ Hurricane Katrina coverage scrutinized after apology for Iraq War story

Michael Walsh
NBC's Brian Williams apologized for relaying a false story about taking fire in Iraq in 2003. Journalism ethics professor Robert Dreschel discusses how this may affect NBC. Photo: Getty

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Brian Williams did not take a hit in Iraq, but his credibility sure is under fire.

The embattled journalist’s other reports are being called into question after he admitted Wednesday to not being aboard a U.S. Air Force helicopter that was struck by rockets in 2003, as he had claimed for over a decade.

Skeptical bloggers are now scrutinizing his award-winning coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and subsequent interviews.

Williams, 55, claims to have seen a dead body float past the window of the five-star hotel where he was staying in the French Quarter.

“When you look out of your hotel room window in the French Quarter and watch a man float by face-down, when you see bodies that you last saw in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and swore to yourself that you would never see in your country,” he said in a 2006 interview.

But many argue there were no corpses floating through the French Quarter because it — being on higher ground — was spared the overwhelming floodwaters that devastated other neighborhoods when the levees broke.

The New Orleans Advocate reports that pictures shot around that time by a Ritz-Carlton guest show that there was water outside the building. It was unclear how deep it was.

The hotel is located on Canal Street between Burgundy and Dauphine streets, which is technically just outside the Quarter, which remained mostly — if not totally — dry, according to the Louisiana paper.

In the same interview, Williams said, “I beat that storm. I was there before it arrived. I rode it out with people who later died in the Superdome.”

But Williams did not exactly suffer the same plight as the locals trapped inside.

A former producer for the CBS Evening News  who was in the Superdome on Aug. 29, 2005  verified for Yahoo News that Williams rode out Katrina in the stadium; however, Williams, like most members of the media, left that afternoon to file his stories.

He did not endure the mayhem that evacuees went through overnight and days afterward, as supplies ran short.

In the immediate days after the storm, the producer said, NBC News had an RV compound on Canal Street with food, drinks and military-trained security.

Just last year, in an interview with his “Nightly News” predecessor Tom Brokaw, Williams claimed he had fallen sick with dysentery after accidentally drinking floodwater.

“My week, two weeks there was not helped by the fact that I accidentally ingested some of the floodwater. I became very sick with dysentery,” he said.

But Dr. Brobson Lutz, an infectious disease specialist who operated an EMS station during Katrina, told The New Orleans Advocate that he doubts Williams’ claim.

“I saw a lot of people with cuts and bruises and such, but I don’t recall a single, solitary case of gastroenteritis during Katrina or in the whole month afterward,” he said to the local paper.

Brokaw, 75, apparently knew Williams’ Iraq claim was false for a long time and wants him fired, according to the New York Post.

Brokaw later denied the Post's report: "I have neither demanded nor suggested Brian be fired," Brokaw said in an email to The Huffington Post. "His future is up to Brian and NBC News executives."

NBC News announced Friday they are launching an investigation into Williams.

Williams recanted his story about the Iraq War after the U.S. troops who were actually fired upon spoke out. In fact, he was aboard a different helicopter.

“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” he told Stars & Stripes. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

Twitter users started the humorous hashtag #BrianWilliamsMisremembers to superimpose the anchor’s face onto scenes of historical events that he clearly did not witness.

Some say that Williams outright lied while others believe he may have “misremembered,” citing the “basic unreliability of memory.”

And, he is not the only person doubting his recollections. 

On Thursday, pilot Rich Krell told CNN that he was flying the helicopter Williams was aboard and that it came under “small arms fire.” But the next day he retracted his story.

“The information I gave you was true based on my memories,” he said, “but at this point I am questioning my memories.”