Anchor's 2007 interview at Fairfield U. draws scrutiny
Published 1:41 pm, Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Years before NBC anchorman Brian Williams came under fire for exaggerating his involvement in the Iraq war, he told students at Fairfield University the same story, plus another about a close encounter with Hezbollah rockets in Israel.
The 2007 interview at Fairfield University was filmed by The HAM Channel, Fairfield U.'s student television station at the time and can be found on YouTube.
In the video, Williams tells Emily Fitzmaurice, then a Fairfield University junior, about "Katyushka rockets passing just beneath the helicopter I was riding in" while he was in Israel.
Then, the newsman added: "A few years before that you go back to Iraq, and I looked down the tube of an RPG that has been fired at us, and it hit the chopper in front of ours."
Over the weekend, Williams announced he was taking time off after backing away from his often-repeated account of the Iraq incident. Williams had first claimed he was in the helicopter that was hit, then later that he was riding behind the chopper hit by enemy fire. NBC has announced an internal review of the matter.
Williams gave the Fairfield interview shortly before going on stage to give a 45-minute talk at Fairfield's Quick Center for the Arts.
Philip Eliasoph, a Fairfield professor who directed the speakers series, and James Simon, a journalism professor who is now dean of Fairfield's College of Arts and Science, say Williams, who lives in New Canaan, was charming and gracious during the visit.
"I was overwhelmed by how quick on his feet he was, and personable," Simon said.
Simon said it is possible that Williams truncated memories or ran events together.
"As a journalism professor and former reporter for The Associated Press, I give him a little bit more leeway than most other people seem to be doing," Simon said.
Eliasoph said Williams could not have been more generous or forthcoming with students during his visit to campus. He recalled Williams whispering into his ear moments before going on stage to speak that the university could keep the honorarium they were going to give him and apply it to a minority scholarship fund at the university.
"He surely must have misspoke," Eliasoph said of war stories he said Williams may have "polished."
"He is going to have to live with that regret. ... I am not going to condemn him," Eliasoph said.
Fitzmaurice, a 2009 graduate of Fairfield University with a degree in politics and journalism, could not be reached for comment. She is now spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Economic Development, according to its website.
As Simon recalls, Fitzmaurice was an aggressive student who was the only one on campus who asked for the interview with Williams.
"She probably pestered them," said Simon, who was in the "green room" when the interview took place. He said he doesn't remember the questions asked or the answers.
The stories Williams spoke about during the 8-minute, 24-second interview with Fitzmaurice were not new. He spoke about the Hezbollah incident a year earlier on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and the Iraq story has been told on "The Late Show with David Letterman" and elsewhere. Williams told Fitzmaurice he was very lucky to be alive and "so fortunate to be sitting here."
Williams also talked in the Fairfield interview about beating first responders and riding out Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans Superdome in 2005.
"Not all the people I was with lived," he told Fitzmaurice. "And they weren't killed by the hurricane. I think it is fair to say they were killed by the botched response ... I was there to bear witness."
Some are now questioning some of the stories Williams has told about his Katrina experience, including his claim of witnessing a body floating past the hotel he stayed in. A Poynter Institute account of the growing Williams controversy on Sunday suggested the story he told about the Hezbollah rockets will also now undoubtedly be fact-checked.