The source CNN media reporter Brian Stelter introduced to the world as the man “who was piloting the Chinook that Williams was on,” is now backing off his claim. And Stelter is now all but admitting he was burned by this source. He’s also suggesting he was misled by NBC News, an outlet highly invested in getting a favorable narrative out about their prize anchor.
The source in question, Rich Krell, told a story very favorable to Williams. Through CNN, Krell claimed that Williams’ chopper was in the formation with the chopper that really was hit by the RPG and therefore close enough for Williams to witness the incident. Krell also claimed that the chopper Williams was riding in was hit by small arms fire.
This story was hugely important to Williams, and some media reporters like Politico’s Dylan Byers grabbed hold of it as enough to save Williams’ job and excuse his wild tale as an act of “conflation.” Byers has now changed his tune completely.
But while CNN and Stelter trumpeted this reporting, at least four other military witnesses, including two the New York Times identified as the real pilots that day, completely disputed and contradicted Krell’s claims. They said Williams chopper was never hit by small arms fire and that the chopper Williams was in was at least thirty minutes behind the Chinook hit by the RPG. Therefore, Williams was in no position to witness or “conflate” anything.
Later that same day, CNN anchor Jake Tapper interviewed Krell and again identified him as Williams’s pilot on the day in question.
In his retraction Stelter explains:
I looped in my editor at CNNMoney and started verifying Krell’s identity and story. I asked myself: was Krell a “plant?” Did he invent his Twitter account to trick me? No — his account dated back to 2012. I cross-referenced his Twitter and LinkedIn accounts and other Google results for his name. I found what he’d written about Iraq, and what had been written about him.
Importantly, I found a picture of Krell standing with Williams in a book published by NBC News about the Iraq War.
Perhaps most importantly, I contacted the NBC News public relations department. When I asked about Krell’s name, the P.R. person replied with a message labeled “off the record,” so I can’t quote it here. Suffice to say, the reply gave me more confidence in Krell’s account.
Then I wrote a CNNMoney story, quoting Krell at length. “He messed up some things and said some things he shouldn’t have,” Krell said — while backing up Williams’ accounts of “small arms fire.” I also helped set up Krell’s Thursday afternoon interview on CNN TV.
The newspaper Stars and Stripes published a story on Thursday afternoon contradicting Krell’s account. I called Krell and he told me, “No, that’s not what happened.”
Krell is now works for a military contractor after serving in the Army from 1983 to 2007.
Here’s video of Stelter’s mea culpa:
Stelter also suggests that during the confirmation process he was misled by NBC:
Perhaps most importantly, I contacted the NBC News public relations department. When I asked about Krell’s name, the P.R. person replied with a message labeled “off the record,” so I can’t quote it here. Suffice to say, the reply gave me more confidence in Krell’s account. …
The NBC P.R. person now says the network can’t confirm which person piloted Williams’ helicopter. The situation remains murky and many questions remain unanswered. (There is somebody that can clear a lot of this up — and that’s Williams.)
This is the second public embarrassment for Stelter in as many weeks.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC