Feb 06 2015
Memory is a slippery thing. We know from countless psychological studies that memories can easily be fabricated, they will alter over time, and details will shift to enhance the emotional theme of the story. Further, we tend to personalize stories – over time we remember events that happened to our friends as happening to us.
Recently NBC host Brian Williams was caught telling a version of an event that happened 12 years ago that differs from the version others recall, and the version that he himself told at the time. He and his cameraman were in a helicopter group during the Iraqi war in 2003. The leading three helicopters, which were 30-60 minutes ahead, were forced to land upon taking small arms fire, with one copter being hit by an RPG. Williams’ copter also landed when they arrived at the lead group in order to avoid being fired on. The group had to be rescued by ground troops and tanks.
The problem is that Williams’ retelling of this story has shifted a bit over the years, until in the last couple of years he puts himself in the helicopter that was hit by fire. Stars and Stripes gives the timeline of this shifting story. So what’s going on here.
The mainstream media is reporting this story with the assumption that Williams lied. Politico Magazine writes, “Why Did Brian Williams Lie?” The article is written from the assumption that he knew what he was doing. It concludes:
“The allure of a hero’s status can be irresistible,” says scholar W. Joseph Campbell, who has written extensively on media myths. “It’s a warping, cinematic effect.” You’d think that Brian Williams, a mega-successful, handsome, funny, high-status multimillionaire journalist wouldn’t need laurels beyond the ones he’s already collected. You’d be wrong.
Of course, I have no idea what was in Williams’ mind, what he remembered, and if on some level he knew he was embellishing his own story. What is clear, however, is that it is very possible Williams remembered the version of the story he has recently been telling.
Williams himself calls the incorrect details a “mistake,” and report that, ““I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” Elsewhere he says that he spent the weekend thinking he was going crazy, but reviewing his own version of events from 12 years ago plainly tells a different story than his current memory.
While I can’t know what is in his mind, given what we know about memory it is reasonable to give Williams the benefit of the doubt. It is absolutely possible, even likely, that it is his memory that has shifted over the years, in a fashion consistent with memory research.
I might also argue that it would be extremely foolish for someone like Williams to knowingly lie about an event that is well documented (even by himself) and that can easily be fact-checked.
The exact same situation occurred in 2008 with Hillary Clinton. She recounted a story of rushing from an airplane, ducking her head as sniper fire whizzed overhead. Video showed her story to be inaccurate – there was no gunfire or ducking of heads.
There is also the classic case of Jean Hill. She was standing on the side of the road close to Kennedy when he was shot in Dealey Plaza. At the time she was interviewed and said she didn’t see anything. Over the years television interviews document the morphing of her story, until she was chasing a second shooter from the grassy knoll. The morphing of her story likely represents the morphing of her memory.
We have all experienced small examples of this. When comparing memories with family or friends from years past you notice that the details don’t match. Sometimes there is disagreement over who was the central figure in the tale, over what happened to whom. These are not quirks or funny exceptions. You also cannot assume you are correct and the other person is crazy. This is everyday memory.
While I do not know what Williams remembered, it is wrong and naive to assume he is lying. Williams was likely betrayed by his memory. It is reasonable to argue that, as a journalist, he should have rechecked earlier documentation of the event rather than relying upon his memory. That is a lesson hard won.
Williams probably assumed that his memory was accurate. He may have been falsely reassured by the clarity of his memory, which is not a good predictor of veracity. He thought he was “going crazy,” but he is just suffering from a typical fallible human memory.
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