In the wake of the revelation that NBC’s Brian Williams told a false story about his helicopter being shot out of the sky by an RPG in Iraq, some of his other claims of facing danger while on assignment deserve a fresh look.
In hindsight, one particular story Williams told about facing similar life-threatening danger during his coverage of hurricane Katrina stands out as odd. In a TV special narrating his experience, Williams claimed NBC News decided to pull out of New Orleans because the police were overwhelmed and the situation had become too dangerous. As he was being driven out of the city, Williams claims he was so concerned about the possibility of a carjacking that he planned to barter for his own life with a case of Vienna Sausages.
It was not good. We started to feel that if we had food we shouldn’t eat it publicly. If we had water we shouldn’t drink it in front of anyone else. Everywhere we went, every satellite shot, every camera shot–we were at the height of the violence and the looting, all the reports of gun play downtown. Well who is bathed in the only lights in town it was us…We had to ask federal protection service guys with automatic weapons to just form a ring and watch our backs while we were doing Dateline NBC one night. We made a decision the French Quarter was no longer safe. Things were getting dicey and we pulled out to the suburb of Metairie, Louisiana.
I’ll be candid, we heard CNN pulled out. That had some influence on our decision. We had no weapons. We don’t work that way. That has to separate us as journalists but it wasn’t safe.
Cars were king. If you had transportation out of town to high ground you might eat. You might get some water. So here we are driving through town in our rental cars. State troopers had to cover us by aiming at the men in the street just to tell them ‘Don’t think of doing a smash and grab and killing this guy for the car.’ I carried a case of Vienna sausage, cans of Vienna Sausage, as collateral in case we had a smash and grab carjacking. I was going to offer it in exchange for my life.
Did this really happen as Williams describes it? It sounds a bit extreme. But even if we assume the story is true, it raises some questions about Williams’ thought process. First of all, would someone bold enough to steal a car at gunpoint really pause to barter with Williams for food? In what sense would Williams be in a position to barter with a creole Lord Humungus holding a gun on him?
And what about the rest of the NBC News crew riding in the car? Did Williams plan to barter for their lives as well, or was it understood that the ride out of New Orleans was every man for himself? Perhaps everyone had a case of tinned meat on their laps? Or was it agreed ahead of time that Williams needed to survive the ride to the suburbs, even if the rest of the crew did not? It all sounds a bit fantastic, though it may still have happened. There must be someone who was in the car with Williams who could verify or debunk his story.
Again, even if this story is completely true, what does it say that Williams imagined the people he was leaving behind were desperate enough to kill for food — yet he drove out of town with enough meat to feed several families sitting on his lap?