An NBC News journalist is involved in a harrowing scene of battlefield danger. The journalist’s first-person story serves as the dominant narrative for years—but it turns out to be wrong, very wrong. Sound familiar? This isn’t the Brian Williams scandal. It’s worse: the story of the December 2012 kidnapping and rescue of Richard Engel, NBC’s chief foreign correspondent, in Syria.
The prevailing narrative held that, as Engel reported immediately after he was freed, a group of Shia militiamen loyal to Basher Assad’s embattled government had kidnapped and mistreated the star reporter and his colleagues. Engel pointed to the language his captors used and other pronounced signs of their allegiances, ranging from graffiti scrawled on the wall of their prison to the coffee cups they drank from.
But the narrative was false, a set-up by a Sunni rebel group opposing Assad. That much became clear on Wednesday night, when NBC quietly posted a piece to its website where Engel corrected the record. “The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia,” Engel wrote. Curiously, the piece is posited as producing “new details” about the attack, not as a correction; there was no retraction of or apology for earlier errors in reporting, as is customary.
Far from answering all the questions about the episode, Engel’s update piece did not give a full accounting of the story from NBC’s perspective. Those gaps were filled, in part, by a subsequent report in The New York Times. The resulting picture looks very bad for NBC, in many ways worse than Brian Williams’s fall from grace due to self-aggrandizement of his now-infamous helicopter incident in Iraq. This was war propaganda spread by NBC, a respected institution in American news. And if the Times’s account is to be believed, the network let the false story stand for years knowing full well that it was at least questionable, if not entirely false.
In Engel’s clarification of his original version story, he wrote:
About a month ago, we were contacted by The New York Times. The newspaper had uncovered information that suggested the kidnappers were not who they said they were and that the Syrian rebels who rescued us had a relationship with the kidnappers.
But in the Times story that subsequently hit the Internet, some part of NBC’s operation was well aware of the doubts over the culpability of pro-Assad forces (with my emphasis):
NBC executives were informed of [known Sunni rebels’] possible involvement during and after Mr. Engels’s captivity, according to current and former NBC employees and others who helped search for Mr. Engel, including political activists and security professionals.