NBC News anchor Brian Williams told differing stories about a 1994 interview he conducted with Nelson Mandela just after his election to the presidency of South Africa.
During an event at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation on Feb. 8, 2008, an audience member asked Williams to name the highlights of his career.
“I was the first person to walk into the hotel room of Nelson Mandela the morning he woke up and learned he’d been elected president,” said Williams.
That moment was marked with historical significance. Mandela was the first black person to be elected president in post-apartheid South Africa. The election was held April 27, 1994.
But Williams told that story a different way during an NBC News broadcast on Dec. 5, 2013, the day Mandela died.
“We now want to take you back almost 20 years to an April morning in 1994 in a hotel suite in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela had been elected president the night before — I had the honor of being the first Western journalist that day to shake his hand and sit down and talk with him,” said Williams.
Besides the obvious change from stating in 2008 that he was the first person to see Mandela to, by 2013, saying he was the first Western journalist to see the leader, Williams embellished his story in another way.
Mandela did not wake up the morning after the election to learn that he had been elected president. He knew the night of the election that he had won.
A CBS News retrospective called the election “a landslide” in Mandela’s favor. Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, won the election with nearly 63 percent of the vote.
He also gave a speech to supporters the night of the election:
This is indeed a joyous night. Although not yet final, we have received the provisional results of the election. My friends, I can tell you that we are delighted by the overwhelming support for the African National Congress.
Within the last few hours, I have received telephone calls from State President de Klerk, General Constand Viljoen, Dr Zac de Beer and Mr Johnson Mlambo, the first Deputy President of the PAC, who pledged their full co-operation and offered their sincere congratulations. I thanked them all for their support and look forward to working together for our beloved country.
Williams’ tweak on the story is part of what appears to be an emerging pattern of embellishment, if not outright lying. Earlier this week, Williams recanted a story he has told numerous times since 2003 that he was on a Chinook helicopter during the Iraq War that came enemy fire. Since the story unraveled, Williams’ reporting during Hurricane Katrina is also being scrutinized. (RELATED: Who Flew Brian Williams’ Chinook?)
In this instance, unlike those tall tales, Williams told his falsehood to a small crowd rather than to millions of people on his nightly news broadcast.
But his manipulation of the detail of the Mandela story suggests that the newsman has a penchant for embellishment, a quality some believe disqualifies him from being the face of America’s most-watched television news broadcast.