Shameful behavior by NBC news executives

Glenn Greenwald describes how NBC News executives allowed a suspicious story to be propagated at a time when the US administration was ginning up war fever against the Assad regime.

It happened after their star Middle East reporter Richard Engel had been kidnapped in December 2012 by supposedly pro-Assad Syrian Shia forces, abused and threatened with death, and then freed by supposedly ‘moderate’ anti-Assad Sunni forces when the reality was that the whole thing was staged by the latter group. In this case, it seems likely that Engel was a victim of the ruse, not part of its creation. While there is no evidence that Engels and his crew knew about this potentially false story about who was responsible for their capture and release, the same cannot be said for executives at NBC News.

In other words, NBC executives at least had ample reason to suspect that it was anti-Assad rebels who staged the kidnapping, not pro-Assad forces. Yet they allowed Engel and numerous other NBC and MSNBC personalities repeatedly and unequivocally to blame the Assad regime and glorify the anti-Assad rebels, and worse, to link the hideous kidnapping to Iran and Hezbollah, all with no indication that there were other quite likely alternatives. NBC refused to respond to the NYT‘s questions about that (The Intercept‘s inquiries to NBC News were also not responded to at the time of publication, though any responses will be added (update: an NBC executive has refused to comment)).

The Brian Williams scandal is basically about an insecure, ego-driven TV star who puffed up his own war credentials by fabricating war stories: it’s about personal foibles. But this Engel story is about what appears to be a reckless eagerness, if not deliberate deception, on the part of NBC officials to disseminate a dubious storyline which, at the time, was very much in line with the story which official Washington was selling (by then, Obama was secretly aiding anti-Assad rebels, and had just announced – literally a week before the Engel kidnapping – “that the United States would formally recognize a coalition of Syrian opposition groups as that country’s legitimate representative”). Much worse, the NBC story was quite likely to fuel the simmering war cries in the west to attack (or at least aggressively intervene against) Assad.

That’s a far more serious and far more consequential journalistic sin than a news reader puffing out his chest and pretending he’s Rambo. Falsely and recklessly blaming the Assad regime for a heinous kidnapping of western journalists and directly linking it to Iran and Hezbollah, while heralding the rebels as heroic and compassionate – during a brewing “regime change” and intervention debate – is on the level of Iraqi aluminum tubes.

At the very least, NBC owes a serious accounting for what happened here, yet thus far refuses to provide one (note how, as usual, the media outlets who love to sanctimoniously demand transparency from others refuse to provide even a minimal amount about themselves). There were – and are – a lot of shadowy interests eager to bring about regime change in Syria and to malign Iran and Hezbollah with false claims. Whether by intent or outcome, that’s what this story did. If it was not only false at the time NBC executives repeatedly broadcast it, but recklessly disseminated with ample reason to suspect its falsity, that is a huge journalistic scandal.

Greenwald says that this is a much bigger scandal than their news anchor Brian Williams’s false boasts about his reporting heroics.

UPDATE: Thanks to reader SC (Salty Current), I learned that Richard Engel has confirmed that he was duped, saying that he has since learned that:

  • The group that kidnapped us was Sunni, not Shia.
  • The group that kidnapped us put on an elaborate ruse to convince us they were Shiite Shabiha militiamen.
  • The group that kidnapped us was a criminal gang with shifting allegiances.
  • The group that freed us also had ties to the kidnappers.


  1. karmacat says

    I remember watching a news story about Syria but I don’t remember if it was NBC or CBS. What struck me was how much there was a pro-war slant. They talked to Syrians who were hoping the US would do something. I think they also covered other politicians saying that Obama is a coward if he doesn’t do anything

  2. says

    Sy Hersh did an article explaining that the chemical weapons attacks -- so widely reported on by the warhawks -- were most likely a provocation by one of the militias. That reporting, in the NYT, no less, sort of made a little splash then vanished without a trace. Hersh made a convincing case that the US’ stupid ‘red line’ was an invitation to try to lure the US into action with a “no flag” attack that would get mis-attributed. And it seems to have worked, partially. The US armed rebels and even may have given them MANPADs, which is one reason the US is being very careful about how they engage with ISIL.

  3. says

    This, in the new version, did raise an eyebrow:

    The kidnappers told us they were Shiite militiaman, members of the notorious Shabiha militia loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. They spoke in a particular accent, playing Shiite chants on their cellphones, smoking cigarettes, even serving us coffee in cups decorated with Shiite symbols. I, along with two other Arabic speaking members of our six-member team, believed they were from the Shabiha.

    Didn’t this seem like overkill? Coffee cups with Shiite symbols?

  4. Mano Singham says

    SC (Salty Current),

    In hindsight, Engel would probably agree with you. But at the moment, when they must have been scared of being killed, their analytical skills may not have been at their sharpest.

  5. says

    In hindsight, Engel would probably agree with you. But at the moment, when they must have been scared of being killed, their analytical skills may not have been at their sharpest.

    Well, except that he published that yesterday, and apparently still considers that as reasonable evidence that these people were 100% Genuine Shiite. And he doesn’t seem to have wavered from that belief until recently despite several other people publicly calling the identity of the kidnappers into question even in the immediate aftermath.

    I think what probably happened is that their act fit with his own views, making it much less likely that he would examine it skeptically, at the time or since.

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