The incorrect report Wednesday night that the gunmen responsible for murdering 12 people in Paris had been killed or were in custody is not the first time NBC News and correspondent Pete Williams got it wrong on a major, breaking story.
In fact, the most recent example comes less than a year after a similarly serious mistake on a story involving a gunman killing three people at a mall in Columbia, Md.
Wednesday's incorrect claim in the aftermath of a massacre at the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper was not only broadcast on the "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," but was still on the news division's website as late as 8 p.m. Wednesday - and was being cited throughout the mediasphere.
In the Maryland mall shooting, which took place Jan. 25, NBC News and the network-owned station in Washington tweeted that the killings were the result of a "domestic" situation - providing a motive no other major news organization had.
Both tweets attributed the information to Pete Williams. One said he "confirms" that the shooting was "domestic" and "not random." While the other said "a federal law enforcement official" was telling him that.
The first tweet on that rampage came a mere 48 minutes after the shooting itself.
Several layers of local, state and federal law enforcement officials denied the "domestic" angle as the NBC News tweets tore through the media landscape.
But neither Williams nor the network ever retracted or corrected the tweets -- despite subsequent police investigations saying there was no "evidence" of a relationship and several pieces by me asking NBC News about the bad Twitter reporting.
In fact, Williams wouldn't even respond to requests from The Sun to discuss the matter. An NBC News spokeswoman responded instead saying Williams had moved on to other stories. She expressed puzzlement as to why I continued to seek comment.
One of the reasons I pursued the matter was that the parents of one of the victims steadfastly denied that their daughter knew the gunman, and said they were deeply hurt by the "domestic" claim, which police investigations subsequently concluded did not exist. In the canon of media ethics to which I subscribe incorrect information always needs to be corrected - but especially when it causes pain to victims and families.
(You can read a blow-by-blow at the bottom of this post.)
What happened Wednesday, with NBC News reporting bad information on the Paris killings from Williams and his sources, is what can happen when you ignore and try to stonewall on a mistake -- when you don't discuss, acknowledge and publicly retract it. You repeat it again. That's why legacy journalism has the model and system it does for corrections.
Benjamin Mullin, at Poynter.org, reported today that an NBC News spokesperson emailed him "saying the report was based on 'two consistently reliable U.S. counterterrorism officials in different government agencies.'"
Mullin went on to quote the spokesperson, saying, "As soon as it became evident that our sources doubted their information, we immediately updated our reporting across all platforms and continue to do so as this fast-moving story unfolds."
At least NBC acknowledged it published and broadcast incorrect information this time, though it would be hard not to, given that it was the only network newscast making the claim at the time.
And clearly, NBC News still doesn't fully acknowledge what it did: "Updating" is not correcting. Understanding the difference would be a good start on accountability.
I wonder if Brian Williams will lead the "NBC Nightly News" tonight with a correction and apology for the misinformation broadcast and published on-air last night.
I hope someone with a sense of journalistic standards at NBC News will do what wasn't done last year when such a mistake was made - and fully retract it.
I also wonder if one of Pete Williams' sources Wednesday was the same one cited on the mall shooting.
Here's part of one piece I wrote last year on the mall-shooting reporting by Williams and NBC:
Shortly after noon on that day, less than an hour after the shooting took place, News4 Washington, the NBC-owned station in Washington, tweeted, "@NBCNews' Pete Williams confirms Columbia Mall shooting was a domestic situation, not random." Williams is the justice correspondent for NBC News in its Washington bureau.
The NBC tweet, saying Williams "confirmed" the shooting as a "domestic situation" a mere 48 minutes after the act, sparked and then drove what became in essence an echo chamber of false confirmation.
Social media aggregators like @breakingnews quickly propelled it further into the mediasphere by retweeting it around the world.. and it was reported that way on scores of news sites from New York to London, often citing NBC.
Four days after the shooting, an NBC News spokeswoman told me that Williams had moved on to other stories, and she seemed puzzled as to why I wanted to talk to him about that tweet and another from "NBC Nightly News" later in the day of the shooting that said, "Latest: Shooting at mall in Columbia, Maryland was a domestic situation, federal law enforcement official tells NBC News — @PeteWilliamsNBC."
One reason I wanted to talk to Williams is that his name carries considerable authority in such situations, given that he was a star reporter on the Boston bombings for getting several key details right when other reporters like CNN's John King were getting things wrong.
I wanted to talk to him because an NBC News spokeswoman sent me an email the week after the shooting saying, "Pete Williams never publicly reported the Maryland shooting was a domestic situation."
I was interested in how NBC News was parsing "never publicly reported" to make that claim in light of those two tweets with his name in them.
NBC News did not immediately respond Wednesday to my question as to whether it would correct or in any way revisit its reporting on the Columbia Mall shooting in light of the Howard County Police saying that the information reported by Williams was wrong.
NBC has the highest-rated nightly news on network TV. But it also has the lowest standards and the worst journalistic infrastructure I have seen in three decades on the media beat.
UPDATE: Brian Williams acknowledged the mistake on air during the "NBC Nightly News" Thursday, but if there was any blame suggested by his words it was directed at the two anonymous "sources" Pete Williams cited - not NBC's news operation.
Latest David Zurawik
Getting two sources saying something is true doesn't make it so. There are several steps that a responsible news operation takes in vetting such information before it publishes or airs it. In additon to not seeming to understand what journalistic accountability means maybe there is also a problem at NBC with knowing what verification entails.