Brian Williams' Woes: Did NBC learn anything from 'Dateline' exploding trucks scandal?

As NBC News staggers to craft a response to Brian Williams’ self-inflicted credibility crisis, it strikes me that the network graybeards, if any remain, might want to look back at how they handled the problems that pitched their news division into darkness in the early 1990s.

Anchors and reporters bring a very important asset to work with them each day: their credibility. Once that’s gone, it’s very hard to restore.

Though I wasn’t directly involved, and it happened more than two decades ago, I remember the details quite clearly — which makes Williams’ “misremembering” what should have been life-threatening events a dozen years ago all the more puzzling.

Anchors and reporters bring a very important asset to work with them each day: their credibility. Once that’s gone, it’s very hard to restore.

I was an extremely proud member of the NBC News team from 1992-1995, one of the original correspondents hired for "Dateline NBC.” These days "Dateline" seems to report only on sensational murder cases, but back then we tried to produce a hard-charging newsmagazine covering a broad range of topics.

A report "Dateline" aired on Nov. 17, 1992, rocked NBC News to its core, generating the kind of public mistrust the Williams debacle is generating today. Safety advocates said Chevrolet and GMC pickups built from 1973 to 1987 had a design flaw: Their dual gas tanks were positioned outside the frame and could rupture and catch fire in a side-impact collision.

"Dateline" hired an independent testing laboratory to evaluate whether the claims of the trucks’ detractors had merit. The production budget was limited — it’s expensive to destroy even a used truck — so the plan was to stage only two crashes, ramming small cars into the sides of GM trucks at different speeds.

The New York Times carried this account of those “tests” on Feb. 9, 1993: "In the first test, at 39 miles an hour, a fire broke out. In a second test, at 47 mph, there was no fire. GM said gasoline probably spilled from the tank in the first test because it was filled beyond its normal capacity and closed with an improper cap.”

Two crashes, one fire. But the frightening video of a truck in flames masked an uglier truth. The testers wanted to enhance the chances of a fire, and to that end they attached model rocket engines to the underside of the trucks near the gas tanks. Wired to be remotely ignited on command, the rocket engines — roughly the size of a roll of nickels — hissed out a tongue of sparks and flame just as each “test truck” was T-boned by the smaller car.

Viewers weren’t told about the deception, at least not when the report first ran, because the test lab personnel convinced the "Dateline" staffers that their lighting of the rocket engine’s mini-blowtorch wasn’t the cause of the conflagration. They claimed the glowing headlights in the oncoming car exploded on impact in a shower of sparks, igniting the gasoline sloshing from the truck’s tank.

GM protested the findings and asked to examine the trucks; "Dateline" staffers said they’d been towed away and couldn’t be found.

Except GM investigators found them.

Less than three months after "Dateline" aired its hourlong report, GM’s general counsel held an extraordinary — and, for us, humiliating — news conference. He told the world that NBC’s “test” was rigged. The tanks were intact and hadn’t ruptured. Evidence of the ignited rocket engines attached to the underside of the trucks was obvious.

The repercussions were swift, and for those of us at "Dateline", painful. The day after GM’s disclosures, "Dateline"’s anchors read an extraordinary, live, three-and-a-half-minute apology on air. The next day GM dropped the defamation suit it had filed.

It was an awful time. We’d been the proud and confident stewards of the premier newsmagazine on the No. 1 network. Overnight, we became the pariahs of 30 Rock. Staffers from programs like "Today" and "Nightly News" glared at us in the elevators; the actions of a few brought scorn upon the entire news division. All of the enmity was directed squarely and sometimes vociferously at "Dateline" personnel, even those of us who’d had nothing to do with the preparation of the report.

NBC hired a team of lawyers from outside the company to investigate the chain of events. The following month, they issued their 70-page conclusion — an indictment, really — a copy of which I still have. The report on the trucks was “flawed journalism.” The president of NBC called the entire episode “indefensible.”

Heads rolled. The then-president of NBC News, the most powerful person in the entire news operation, was forced to resign. The executive producer of "Dateline" soon followed, along with his top lieutenant and the producer of the report. The correspondent on the story was “reassigned” to a local NBC station, the equivalent of sending a major league ballplayer to the minors. Four dismissals and one demotion resulting from a misguided attempt to burnish the facts and mislead viewers.

Which brings us to the present maelstrom. Williams’ story, told and changed and enhanced over the years and retracted in the last week, is that he was aboard a chopper that was forced down by hostile fire in the opening days of the Iraq war. The soldiers who transported him insist their Chinook wasn’t hit by so much as a BB.

Williams says now he “misremembered” the events of that day. He apologized to viewers and NBC staff and said he was taking himself off the air "for a few days.”

I know a young soldier who was aboard a Chinook that came perilously close to going down in Afghanistan. The near-crash was due to mechanical issues, not enemy fire. The Chinook’s front and back rotors have to be carefully synched to keep the bird in the air, and for some reason the front rotor lost power at low altitude and the ship began to dive.

The quick-thinking pilot was able to rescue her craft and save everyone onboard. Asked what would have happened if she hadn’t flipped the correct switches, she calmly replied, “We’d have gone inverted and crashed.”

Seems to me that’s not the kind of event one “misremembers.” Either you’re onboard a Chinook that comes frighteningly close to taking you to your death, or you’re not. I’m pretty sure most of us could keep those facts straight, even after a dozen years.

One of the soldiers who was in the chopper hit in Iraq (and in which Williams was not riding) is quoted in Stars and Stripes as resenting Williams’ attempt at basking in reflected glory. “It was something personal for us that was kind of life-changing for me. I know how lucky I was to survive it,” said Lance Reynolds, who was the flight engineer. “It felt like a personal experience that someone else wanted to participate in and didn’t deserve to participate in.” (Travis Tritten, Stars and Stripes, Feb. 4, 2015).

In March 2003, when the “misremembered” events occurred, Williams was not the anchor of NBC Nightly News. Tom Brokaw was; he ceded his chair to Williams the following year. It’s worth remembering that at the time Williams now claims, or claimed, he was nearly blown out of the sky while doing his job, another handsome, young, smart and ambitious NBC correspondent was earning plaudits for his coverage of the invasion: David Bloom.

Ten days after Williams filed his story about a chopper shoot-down — later, his chopper — Bloom died on the Iraqi battlefield. He was only 39, the victim of a blood clot — deep vein thrombosis — brought on by long hours spent squatting in the American tanks spearheading the invasion.

The filling of an anchor chair is a capricious exercise frequently altered by work product, timing, visibility, cunning, office politics and a myriad of other intangibles. What might have happened on NBC’s internal chessboard if Bloom had survived the war and continued his excellent, unembellished reporting?

But now Brian Williams has that chair, and the managing editor title that goes with it. That’s why he has the power to take himself — himself — off the air “for a few days.” There is an investigation, to be led by the head of the network’s investigative reporting team, the guy who’s constantly fighting to get his unit’s stories into the high-profile slot on — guess where — NBC Nightly News.

The current president of NBC News, Deborah Turness, issued a wan statement to staffers — “…we’re working on what the best next steps are…” — sounding as though she has no idea, really, what to do except let the managing editor take himself off the air.

Her boss, Patricia Fili-Krushel, the chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, doesn’t appear to have a lengthy background in news. Her official bio says she worked, among other places, at WebMD. It boasts that at ABC she brought the world “The View,” led ABC Daytime to No. 1 among women 18-49 and launched SoapNet, the 24-hour soap opera cable network. Will she involve herself in the contretemps?

Perhaps not. Perhaps the public humiliation of her $10-million-a-year anchor, heretofore America’s most popular, is punishment enough. I leave it for readers and viewers to decide whether NBC should take the same kind of action it took in 1993.

Is it somehow less corrosive, more “innocent,” for Williams to mislead, even to lie to the audience about his dashing exploits as a war correspondent than it was to set on fire a truck that otherwise probably would not have ignited, just to show viewers that sometimes such trucks might catch fire?

Will NBC hire outside lawyers to look into the spawning of Williams’ fables? Will heads roll? Should they?

Anchors and reporters bring a very important asset to work with them each day: their credibility. Once that’s gone, it’s very hard to restore. Lying is lying, whether you’re spinning yarns about how a truck blew up or how you nearly lost your life in Iraq.

Brian Williams has taken himself off the air for a few days. We’ll see whether NBC News, and America’s viewers, are willing to let him return.