Noack: Brian Williams mess reflects on NBC

William H. Noack

NBC is having trouble with the truth. Again.

NBC News anchor Brian Williams’ admission that he played loose with the facts about being shot down by enemy fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, brought back old memories of NBC to some of us who were working for General Motors in the 1990s.

Back then – February 9, 1993 to be exact – NBC admitted to rigging an entire segment of their evening newsmagazine “Dateline NBC” to make GM pickup trucks look dangerous. And when it was all over, NBC had apologized on air, their News president had resigned and the seamy side of network news had been revealed.

The network’s objective was to show that GM’s full sized pickup trucks, equipped with what then were called “side-saddle fuel tanks” would explode upon impact. The news segment, called “Waiting to Explode,” aired nationally on November 17, 1992.

As part of the segment, the network had earlier filmed a “test” in an open field in central Indiana, during which they crashed a car moving at high speed into a GM truck in hopes of igniting a major explosion for their cameras.

But a funny thing happened as the crash car was approaching its target. When GM lawyers slowed down film of the event, they noticed small puffs of smoke coming from under the truck just milliseconds before the impact. That was because sparking devices had been taped to the truck and were being ignited remotely to start a fire.

Not only was the test totally rigged, but the rigging itself had been botched.

And there was a sidebar to the story that wasn’t widely covered by the media. The NBC crew that set up the staged test, arranged for a fire truck from a nearby Indiana community to be standing by. The idea was that when the explosion happened, the firemen could be filmed rushing in to douse the blaze. It would make great TV drama.

As it turned out, the firemen had more ethics than the NBC crew. They knew something was fishy when they saw the igniting devices being taped to the bottom of the target truck. One of the firemen made an innocent comment to an automotive magazine editor and word got back to GM. The unraveling had begun.

Still, GM had to find the evidence in order to prove its case. A bright young attorney on the GM legal team named Bill Kemp led a team that scoured every junk yard in central Indiana looking for the vehicles used in the test. Finally, Kemp’s search paid off. The vehicles were found — with the tape and burned ignitors still visible on the rigged pickup.

On February 8, 1993, Harry Pearce, then GM’s top lawyer, led reporters through a masterful step-by-step accounting of the entire shabby affair. “What I’m about to show you should shock the conscience of everyone in your profession and mine,” Pearce began. It did. By the time his presentation was over, NBC had no leg to stand on.

The next evening, Dateline anchors Jane Pauley and Stone Phillips confessed, reading extraordinary apologies that revealed the fraud of the rigged tests. “We deeply regret we included inappropriate demonstrations in our ‘Dateline’ report,” Pauley and Phillips read on the air. “We apologize to our viewers and to General Motors. We have also concluded that unscientific demonstrations should have no place in hard news stories at NBC. That’s our new policy.”

A few days later, NBC News president Michael Gartner “resigned.” NBC never gave a reason but most observers believed it was for using fakery in news programs.

The Los Angeles Times wrote: “Disclosures of the rigged demonstration have already damaged the credibility of NBC News. Many of the network’s reporters and producers privately professed embarrassment over the incident, and media experts were roundly criticizing NBC’s tactics as highly questionable and unethical.”

Which brings us to Brian Williams. Obviously, NBC’s history of making stuff up and calling it news still exists. But the larger question is: How many lies does it take before people just stop watching?

William H. Noack is a retired General Motors executive.