Former NBC News reporter says Seal Team Six story was shelved after Williams scandal

Last month, The Intercept published a massive investigation into alleged war crimes committed by members of Seal Team Six, the elite naval special operations unit responsible for killing Osama bin Laden.

The investigation, which spans five parts and thousands of words, was written by Matthew Cole, a longtime national security reporter whose resumé includes stints at ESPN the Magazine, ABC News and NBC News. In his capacity as an investigative producer for NBC News, Cole researched and reported on the story, which took years to complete.

The intricacies of the story and the highly secretive nature of Seal Team Six complicated the reporting process, Cole said in an interview Wednesday with Evan Ratliff of the Longform Podcast. But it was also disrupted by another war story — the fibs told by former "NBC Nightly News" host Brian Williams.

Cole's superiors told him the story wasn't ready to air in part because he didn't have a source on the record, Cole said. Then, in early 2015, Williams was suspended for fabricating stories about his reporting in Iraq. The fallout promoted by Williams' falsehoods created an image problem for NBC News that would have made running the story about misconduct from (actual) war heroes difficult, Cole told Ratliff.

As has been documented extensively, NBC News turned its investigative reporters loose on Williams' record shortly thereafter. The affair was an "oh shit" moment for the network and required the investigative team to temporarily become an "internal affairs" division, Cole said.

Fed up with TV, Cole left NBC News and continued working on the story for The Intercept, which he joined in June 2015. It's unclear whether NBC would have ultimately aired the completed story because Cole was still years from finishing when he left.

Here's the relevant exchange, which you can hear from 20:40 to 23:24 (my emphasis in bold):

Cole: ...We had a lot. We were competing with The (New York) Times. There was a lot of pressure to get it out in late 2014, very early 2015, and I was told that I didn't have enough. We didn't have anyone on the record. That was a really big stumbling block, which I found...very, very frustrating because there simply wasn't ever going to be anyone on the record talking about this stuff in a way that I thought would be useful.

And then Brian Williams decided to tell his own story of valor about Iraq, and I was in the investigative unit at NBC, and two things happened there. One was there was no way in hell NBC was going to be running a story about America's heroes doing bad things after their $10 million hero had told a tall tale...and two, I was on the investigative team looking into Brian Williams.

Ratliff: So you had been reporting stories — not just this one, a lot of stories — which were then presented on TV by Brian Williams — and then when that happened, they turned around and said, 'You now investigate Brian Williams?'

Cole: Yeah. There was a huge, huge 'oh shit' moment at the network, which went sort of like this: If he told this story, what other stories has he told that aren't true? And we have to scrub everything he's ever said, everything he's ever reported, to include appearances outside of the news programs. Which, by and large, by the way, that's where he got into the most trouble. So we became internal affairs, essentially, which is never a fun — which is an interesting thing to see and experience, but it is not a fun experience, and it definitely will sour you on the job.

So it was clear to both myself and my editor at the time, Richard Esposito, who is a very fine editor, a great reporter, and who had encouraged me and let me run for a long time to go travel around the country and track this down. I really am very grateful to him for allowing me to do that at NBC. But very early on in the Brian Williams saga, we looked at each other and realized, this story ain't ever gonna happen here.

So I made a decision, personally, at some point — I never really loved TV, and certainly didn't want to — I couldn't let this story go, is the best way to say it. I wanted this story to live. And to answer your question, you get to a level of detail in the reporting that basically becomes indisputable.

NBC News declined to comment on Cole's remarks.

Esposito, the former head of NBC News' investigative unit who led the probe into Williams' misconduct, left the network last year. In an email to Poynter, he referred questions about Williams to NBC News but said that Cole's story was "simply not ready for publication or airing."

We had numerous sourcing and attribution questions at the time, as Matt acknowledges. He's a great reporter, and after a year of reporting while at NBC and around an additional year after his departure from NBC, he nailed it. His report for the Intercept on Seal Team Six is worth reading.

Esposito, who emphasized that he does not speak for NBC News, told Poynter that the network's investigative team was well-equipped to tell investigative stories during Cole's time there and since.

"NBC News' Investigative Unit had more than 25 journalists attached to it," Esposito told Poynter. "It was and is quite capable of handling numerous complex projects at any given time."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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