A floating body might sink Brian Williams

Brian Williams’s shaky memory about his helicopter rides in Iraq spawned an NBC investigation.  While he’s drawn scorn from battlefield reporters, you’ll still find him behind the network’s anchor desk tonight for now.

It seems that Williams’s story is puffery run amok – embellishing the danger he was in using vague language that, over the years, became an outright lie. If the investigation shows that’s the case, and it’s an isolated incident, the mess probably won’t cost Williams his job. The news consuming public will forgive an honest mistake, and NBC doesn’t want a renewed Brian Williams hosting the CBS Evening News next year. After all, this is a guy who pops up on late night talk shows and even hosted Saturday Night Live.

But there’s another possible outcome. The controversy has invited scrutiny of the fantastic tales Williams shared from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, such as watching bodies float past his hotel room. If there are any more examples of him stretching the truth to sensationalize his memories, Williams is in trouble. Big trouble. Dan Rather-type trouble.

Cover-ups tend to exacerbate scandals – doing something wrong is never as bad as pretending that you haven’t done anything wrong. Similarly, high-visibility public figures only get really pilloried for doing dumb stuff when it becomes a pattern.

If the accounts of a post-Katrina New Orleans turn out to be tall tales, those late night appearances will take on a different context. Williams will retroactively look like someone bent on self-aggrandizement, who pursues attention with no care if the truth is a casualty. His apology for the Iraq story will ring hollow; NBC will have to move him off the air.

New revelations are, at this point, a big “if.” But NBC is looking into it, along with media watchdog organizations. If a puffed-up story about Iraq is the tip of a very real iceberg, someone will find out – and someone else will be hosting the NBC Nightly News.

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