Feb 06 2015

Did Williams Lie?

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.

46 responses so far

46 thoughts on “Did Williams Lie?”

  1. Charcot says:

    Thank you for adddressing this. It disturbs me that with what studies are now revealing about the inexactitude (to put it mildly) of memory, the conclusion jumped to in this situation is that he is lying. Maybe he is lying, which would be rather dumb in his case, particularly in his case since he obviously knows better than anyone that he travels surrounded by cameras, but it is far more likely that his memory has run afoul of him.

    Our current understanding of memory needs to be understood far more widely than it seems to be.

  2. arnie says:

    Very timely, Steve.
    This morning, just before going in to Neurological Blog and finding Steve’s new post, I saw a Letter to the Editor in the Hartford Courant castigating Brian Williams for blatantly lying about his blatant original lie. I think I will write a Letter to the Editor briefly commenting on an alternative narrative for Williams’ comments and referring the reader(s) to this blog for further discussion of the issue. I consider myself about as anti-evangelical as it gets, but if I happen to draw one or more readers to the blog and thence to a shift (“conversion”, if you will) to a more evidence based and critical thinking stance, I wouldn’t consider that such a bad outcome, to say the least. Of course, the odds of my letter getting published are pretty small, I’m sure.

  3. pusherrobot says:

    This really stretches the bounds of credulity. The contemporaneous facts of what happened were well-documented. He reported on them himself, and they could easily be corroborated by the staff that was traveling with him. Since others were disputing his modified version of events, his arrogant refusal to check his own documentary evidence or check his retelling with others who would know is, at best, a reckless disregard for the truth, which completely misfits a man in his position.

  4. string puller says:

    Yesterday on CNN Jake Tapper interviewed the pilot flying the helicopter Brian Williams was riding in on that day. The pilot said that while they were not hit by an rpg, they did in fact get hit by small arms fire. He said they were all afraid as they knew they were being fired upon as it was happening.


    Interestingly, my memory of this interview was that it was conducted by Anderson Cooper, thus delaying my ability to find it via google.

  5. Belgarath says:


    Imagine that you have a clear recollection of an event and you believe it is an accurate portrayal of what happened. Do you go back and look for tapes and such before you talk about it?

    Remember, your recollection is perfectly clear and you have no doubt that what you remember is accurate.

    Why couldn’t the exact same thing happen to Brian Williams?

  6. Hoss says:

    This is easily the best coverage of the Brian Williams “lie” I’ve read.

    Hopefully he doesn’t lose his job because of the general populations ignorance of memory, assuming the untrue statement wasn’t intentional.

  7. pusherrobot says:

    “Imagine that you have a clear recollection of an event and you believe it is an accurate portrayal of what happened. Do you go back and look for tapes and such before you talk about it?”

    If it was a widely reported event, then yes, before I brag about it on national television, I think I would at least Google it and read what I said at the time.

  8. BobbyG says:

    Will #BradleyCooper play #BrianWiliams in the upcoming movie “American Truthiness Sniper”? All snark aside, yesterday I heard the clip of him being interviewed by David Letterman. His regaling of Letterman and his TV audience on the helo fire event was effusively detailed, recounted with affirmative gusto. Pretty cringeworthy at this point.

  9. ca1879 says:

    Pusherrobot – Come on now. Nobody does that and you wouldn’t either. He wasn’t publishing a peer reviewed paper, he was talking off the cuff.

    It’s the very malleable nature of memories, even those that we would assume to be well supported and easily checked that makes our improving understanding of memory so interesting. If it only happened with what we ate for lunch yesterday, it would be trivial. That it happens to very intelligent and highly motivated people in situations that are well documented and important to the individual is what makes it so interesting. I remember (I think) my own “I’m losing my mind” moment this way: I pointed to a picture of the John Hancock building and told my wife that it was the building we visited on our first date in Chicago. It was actually the Sears Tower (at that time) that we visited, and she had the picture to prove it. I was as certain of my memory of that important day as I was of my own name. Ah yes, I remembered it well.

  10. angelo212 says:

    If you research this guy they are catching him in other lies. Especially about the Katrina Storm or the Sandy storm. Forgot which one. Anyway he claimed he was stuck in a Hotel that was completely flooded and caught some ailment (dysphora) or something like that. Come to find out nobody had that disease at that time and that Hotel was not flooded among other things.

  11. dkilmer says:

    It’s interesting that the three examples in the article all involved violent/traumatic events. Is there anything in the research to indicate that events like these are more likely to be misremembered? I’ve read that the amygdala is a sort of separate “track” for memory formation at times like these. Could that play havoc with “normal” memory formation over time?

  12. string puller says:

    Now the pilot who was interviewed yesterday by CNN is saying he may have not remembered correctly. http://deadline.com/2015/02/brian-williams-pilot-retracts-helicopter-cnn-story-1201367528/

  13. Hey Steve!
    Thanks for this great post. I don’t know if this was in response to the email I sent, but either way I appreciate it.

  14. etatro says:

    I think if we all honestly assess ourselves, we may find similar things. Myself, a few days ago, in order to convey the emotional toll and weight of a particularly difficult (and traumatic) situation I short-handed a description of a series of events, and oops — gotta get to the next meeting, the longer version is more nuanced and back & forth and multilayered, but the outcome and emotional charge were conveyed by the shorthand version. this doesn’t happen often, but if I notice it, I try to tell the full story later on. I also once willed myself to forget something I learned about a friend. I accidently discovered sensitive information and I thought, “omg, I have to forget this. They don’t want me to know and I cant give it the cognitive space this issue deserves right now.” A year later, when the information was disclosed to me, it was as if I learned it the first time and only remembered the oringinal discovery after reflecting. After several experiences like this, I am always willing to be charitable when it comes to memory & recollections.

  15. realBKW says:

    I found this extremely interesting. This happens a lot in a family of seven children who now range in age from 51-65. We sometimes feel we grew up in different families, our remembrances can be that different about certain events. Often the facts are somewhat similar but the central character changes, similar to Mr. Willians’ confusing thhe RPG as attacking his chopper. Honestly, Mr. Williams reminds me of my brother, a very successful attorney, i feel both are truly honest men with a great deal ofvintegrity who do not have it in them to perpetrate a lie. Not purposely. Hopefully this kind of research will become better known by average Americans who will have another tool to use when considering whether a public official, especially a politician, “remembers” an event with slight differences from the original telling. I’m glad I found this report! Thank you.

  16. tmac57 says:

    In a meeting with a group of friends who were trying to come up with an idea of how to commemorate a celebration, I proposed what I thought was a great idea, and everyone immediately agreed and the project proceeded with success. I was quite proud of my idea, and then was surprised to find out later, that my wife claimed it as her idea. Not only that, two more of the people at that meeting later each claimed it was their sole idea.
    This bugged me for years since I was short changed for the credit, but the more that I learned about memory fallibility, the more forgiving I became of their transgressions, and ultimately, came the realization that it is just as likely that I was wrong too.
    My experience might be similar to the Apollo 8 ‘Earth Rise’ photo controversy, where the 3 astronauts gave different accounts of who took the famous photo, and what was said and transpired during the event. Each were probably a bit wrong, and a bit right in their stories, but they all seemed to be trying to give an accurate account.

  17. BBBlue says:

    What role does motivation play in misremebering? There is certainly an advantage to be gained my media celebrities like Mr. Williams in filling in the gaps with pieces of a narrative that polishes his credentials as a heroic war journalist. I understand that media folks and politicians are human, but they also have a demonstrated tendency to embellish.

  18. arnie says:

    As my two brothers and I age, we all have a tendency to remember the more remote past better than the recent past. However, our shared memories of our times together in the remote past tend to diverge more and more with the good things ascribed more to the narrator of the memory and the less complimentary things ascribed more to the the listening siblings. If we have a need to reconstruct or memories to protect or enhance our self image, think how much more a celebrity like Brian Williams might be vulnerable to motivated memory reconstruction to preserve or enhance his large public image.

  19. tmac57 says:

    BBBlue- From what I can gain from the literature on memory, pretty much all humans have a tendency to embellish. We may notice it more from all public figures simply because their lives are laid bare by intense public scrutiny, while ours proceed in relative anonymity. Do they do it more than the average person or for more self-serving reasons? I do not and cannot know the answer to that question.

    We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story.

    Mary McCarthy

  20. BBBlue says:

    Hey tmack57,

    I don’t know either, but my expectation is that journalists should try really, really hard to be aware of their human limitations and do everything they can to get the facts right and fight the tendency to embellish. In most cases, this one included, journalists don’t have to rely solely on their own recollections.

    Something similar operates in science; one must be aware of experimental bias and make a conscious effort to reduce or eliminate bias in experimental design and one’s interpretation of results. While bias may be a common human feature, I would discount the work of a scientist who was particularly bad at controlling for it just as I would the work of a journalist who is not very good at remembering facts. In science and journalism, I can’t think of anything more important than integrity and credibility.

    I don’t think it is naive to assume that Brian Williams is lying, I think it is naive to suggest it is likely he was simply betrayed by his memory.

  21. Fair Persuasion says:

    Did Williams lie? No. Did his tall tale get the story out? His chopper took body and side “small” arms fire which impacted the electrical instruments. Does this impact and delay his pilot’s mission. Yes, and was Williams scared? The RPG came close, and the chopper directly involved barely escaped without harm to the crew. Does the Stars and Stripes have the same problem that all media journals have with The Truth. You bet!

  22. BBBlue says:

    Fair Persuasion,

    What’s your source for “His chopper took body and side small arms fire…”? Based on the tenor of your comments, one would think you were actually there.


  23. Fair Persuasion says:

    The source was the CNN interview with the actual chopper pilot whose mission was delayed due to the fire, and he had Williams on the flight.

  24. BBBlue says:

    You mean the one who recanted his story?


  25. tmac57 says:

    BBBlue- Do you also think that it is naive to suggest it is likely that that recanting pilot was simply betrayed by his memory?

  26. JGT says:

    I feel like your analysis misses two pretty big aspects though: his initial story seemed to be a lie and that its been reported NBC execs had asked him to stop telling the story and were aware of the problem, but he continued anyway.

  27. Nitpicking says:

    I once infuriated a somewhat less-eminent journalist by suggesting that he had possibly remembered an event from some 20 years ago less-than-perfectly. I said something like, “Do you have a recording of the radio show? [that he hosted] Do you have your reporter’s notebook about these events?” He replied angrily that I had no reason to question his qualifications as a journalist. Apparently a perfect and incorruptible memory is a requirement for all good journalists, at least in Mike’s mind.

    (We were discussing his memory of a psychic on the show doing things that were impossible for science to explain. I suggested that he he might be remembering them as more impressive in retrospect than they were in reality.)

  28. Fair Persuasion says:

    BBBlue We do not know which pilot recanted his story. There is not a second interview. Just a reporter’s statement from your clip. Williams is a journalist not a scientist. Controversy keeps the story alive.

  29. BBBlue says:

    Fair Persuasion,

    Yes we do, it was Rich Krell who at first said he was Williams’ pilot and that they were shot at and now he is not sure. For now, at least, Krell’s original account appears to be an outlier (no pun intended).

    Rich Krell’s text message to Brian Stelter:

    “Good morning. The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories that I may have forgotten or left something out.”

    He said, “For the past 12 years I have been trying to forget everything that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan; now that I let it back, the nightmares come back with it, so I want to forget again.”

    He concluded, “The men in that article deserve respect. Please understand.”

  30. BBBlue says:


    I don’t know anything about that pilot, so I have no basis upon which to form an opinion. I do know Brian Williams a little from having seen his reporting over many years and I also know a little bit about what motivates media celebrities, as I think we all do.

  31. tmac57 says:

    BBBlue- Do you know enough about Brian Williams to assume that he is lying?

  32. BBBlue says:


    No, not at all. I agree with Steve that it would be wrong to assume he is lying, it’s the “naive” part that seemed out of place. Which of the following statements would you characterize as more naive than the other?

    1. Brian Williams seems like a good egg, considering the way the mind works, I have to assume he just misremembered.

    2. Brian Williams is a media celebrity, he obviously has motive, I have to assume he lied about what happened.

    I guess I always associate “naive” with being unsuspicious or too willing to trust, so I would say #1 is the more naive statement.

    Maybe naive cynicism describes #2. In any case. Brian Williams’ profession is one that is supposed to have a low tolerance for misremembering, and he is managing editor, which means it’s his job to ensure that what gets on the air is supported by the facts, not someone’s faulty memory. He didn’t have to rely on his memory alone, he had a news crew with him as well as military people he could talk to about the incident.

    Wherever the truth lies, I certainly don’t have the same trust in Brian Williams and his contemporaries that I had for the likes of Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, and Mudd. But maybe I was naive back then.

  33. BBBlue, let me guess: you don’t remember Cronkite ever misremembering anything, right?

  34. tmac57 says:

    BBBlue- I always feel vulnerable when I make an assumption based on too few facts. I don’t know what happened, but I do know that memory has been shown to be faulty, so I find your statement ” I think it is naive to suggest it is likely he was simply betrayed by his memory.” to be a bit rash.
    Think of yourself as a potential juror in court trying to decide the fate of a defendant (very possibly the loss of employment, more public humiliation and opprobrium) . Based on the evidence so far, are you ready to pass sentence, or would you like to hear more, to be sure that you are not unfairly judging a person based on what you think you know so far, despite the fact that credible research has shown that people routinely make mistakes when recalling biographical details?
    As for Williams not being more careful than he should have, especially since he is a reporter, I can agree with that, and I suspect he would as well.

  35. BBlue – either assumption is naive. You are either naive about human motivation, or naive about the fallibility of human memory. I am not assuming anything. I said I don’t know what was in his mind.

    However – media reporting is largely going with the assumption he is lying, then moralizing based on that assumption. That assumption is not justified, given what we know about memory. People are assuming that his statement that he “misremembered” is a dodge. But there are good reasons to believe that it is literally true. It is at least highly plausible.

    Yes, he made a journalistic mistake by relying on his memory rather than fact-checking. This is a quality control issue. These sorts of errors occur all the time. No one, no team, no system is perfect. When the error was pointed out, he admitted his mistake and corrected it. That is all that can be expected.

    Many people seem to expect Williams to say, “I deliberately lied to boost my own ego,” based on the assumption that this is the only interpretation of events. It isn’t.

  36. BBBlue says:


    I never suggested you were assuming anything, my quibble was about the use of “naive”, which you originally only applied to an assumption about lying. I feel like I am heading off into pedant territory, so I will end it there.

    However, I don’t think the facts support either “Williams probably assumed that his memory was accurate” or “…he is just suffering from a typical fallible human memory”. Both may be true, but at this point, I think it is naive to think that the honest mistake scenario is “probable”.

    Frankly, I have no idea which is the more probable scenario, I just wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Mr. Williams has a penchant for misremembering on purpose to burnish his credentials.

  37. BBBlue says:


    No, I am not ready to convict, and may never be, but the defendant does have motive, and that speaks to plausibility in the same way that faulty memory does.

  38. Fair Persuasion says:

    BBBlue: The texting stated here is not a recant from Mr. Krell. He has excellent recall of this intense event. The NBC investigation into Williams, and bickering over which military service pilot should be the hero in this saga creates controversy which he does not want in his life. His statement is like a prayer for his service and his fellow service men. But he still believes God is in the details, in the Court of Public Opinion..

  39. BBBlue says:

    Fair Persuasion,

    “…but at this point I am questioning my memories that I may have forgotten or left something out.”

    That qualifies as …”excellent recall of this intense event.”

    Certainly, if Mr. Williams’ memory can be faulty, so can Mr. Krell’s. Why do you think Mr. Krell’s account is the definitive one?

  40. Fair Persuasion says:

    BBBlue: Mr Krell recalls the specific facts of the situation. His doubts about his perfect memories are not sufficient to remove him as a witness to the choppers under fire.

  41. BBBlue says:

    Fair Persuasion,

    Yes, Mr. Krell is a witness, and as fallible as all the other humans; his account is not definitive and will be considered in context.

    Even after Mr. Williams’ reported suspension today, we do not have adequate facts upon which to base a conclusion or an estimate of probabilities.

    Faulty memory is but one human foible that may account for the inconsistency among accounts given by Mr. Williams, and I don’t think it is any more likely as a contributing factor than many others, especially in his line of work, such as vanity, ego, greed, narcissism, need for social acceptance. Who knows, it may even involve pathology.

    But that’s the point, no one knows; so speculating that Mr. Williams probably assumed that his memory was accurate is no more valid than any other speculation based on an understanding or human weakness and potential motivating factors.

  42. Fair Persuasion says:

    I am glad there is a new anchorman, Mr. Holt for the next six months for NBC news. I like variety in the reporters who look into the NBC camera. But Mr. Williams is being criticized for holding an audience’s attention when he does public speaking tours. We, in the audience are captivated by a speaker’s personally experienced scarey moments,e.g. like when he said he saw dead bodies floating in the flood waters from his room at the NO Ritz Carlton, even if the actual truth was that he had to walk a few yards to see the Hurricane Katrina cadavers.

  43. BBBlue says:

    Fair Persuasion,

    As for me, I like my news anchors and managing editors credible and not prone to telling tall tales for the sake of entertaining an audience.

  44. Fair Persuasion says:

    BBBlue: Yours likes are admirable. But NBC news is filtered through ratings and commercial sponsorship. Your cup of Joe/ or Williams in this case is watery.

  45. BBBlue says:

    Fair Persuasion,

    Well, in any case, at least you’ve come around to acknowledge the possibility that Mr. Williams “misremembers” on purpose to hold an audience’s attention.


  46. mspalding says:

    Take action. Sign a petition to have NBC use this to educate every one about the fallibility of human memory. Have NBC reinstate Brian Williams. https://www.change.org/p/nbc-bring-back-brian-williams-4

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