NBC News has suspended Brian Williams for six months, after Williams “misrepresented” his experiences while reporting in Iraq. But is he lying, or merely human? (More)

Memory Lane, Part I: Brian Williams’ Personal Myths

This week Morning Feature explores the science of memory. Today we begin with the response to Brian Williams false stories about Iraq. Tomorrow we’ll see how false memories are created and reinforced, and how that happens to all of us. Saturday we’ll conclude with how to fact-check our memories, and why we should.

“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position”

On Monday, NBC News’ Deborah Turness announced the six-month suspension of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams:

We have decided today to suspend Brian Williams as Managing Editor and Anchor of NBC Nightly News for six months. The suspension will be without pay and is effective immediately. We let Brian know of our decision earlier today. Lester Holt will continue to substitute Anchor the NBC Nightly News.

Our review, which is being led by Richard Esposito working closely with NBCUniversal General Counsel Kim Harris, is ongoing, but I think it is important to take you through our thought process in coming to this decision.

While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.

It now seems certain that Williams repeated false stories about his experiences in Iraq. But was that “wrong and completely inappropriate” … or merely human?

“I was instead in a following aircraft”

CNN Money’s Tom Kludt and Brian Stelter offer a timeline of Williams’ statements about the incident:

  • March 2003 – “On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky”
  • March 2005 – “The helicopter in front of us was hit. A pickup truck stopped on the road, pulled a tarp back; a guy got up, fired an RPG, rocket-propelled grenade. These were farmers, or so they seemed. And it beautifully pierced the tail rotor of the Chinook in front of us.”
  • March 2007 – On Williams’ return visit to Iraq, an AP report states: “He’s traveling with retired U.S. Army Gen. Wayne Downing, who was with him on a previous visit when Williams’ helicopter was forced down by insurgent fire.”
  • July 2007 – In his blog post about Downing’s death, Williams writes of an RPG hitting “the chopper flying in front of ours. There was small arms fire. A chopper pilot took a bullet through the earlobe. All four choppers dropped their heavy loads and landed quickly and hard on the desert floor.”
  • July 2007 – In a TV segment on Downing’s death, Williams says: “when the Chinook helicopters we were traveling in at the start of the Iraq War were fired on and forced down for three days in a stretch of hostile desert in a sandstorm, we were comforted only by the fact that we were flying with the general.”
  • September 2007 – In an interview with Gen. David Petraeus, Williams says: “I guess what I’m trying to understand is there – at the start of the war, when I was flying in a Chinook with General Downing, that helicopter was shot at by a farmer.”
  • November 2007 – Williams tells a student reporter at Fairfield University that he “looked down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us and had hit the chopper in front of ours.”
  • April 2008 – “The Chinook helicopter flying in front of ours (from the 101st Airborne) took an RPG to the rear rotor, as all four of our low-flying Chinooks took fire. We were forced down and stayed down.”
  • April 2008 – The Ohio State University press release announcing Williams’ upcoming commencement address states “He was the first NBC correspondent to reach Baghdad during the 2003 war in Iraq, and was part of a U.S. Army helicopter mission that was forced down by enemy fire south of Najaf.”
  • March 2013 – On Late Night with David Letterman, Williams says “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground-fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47. We figure out how to land safely and we did.”
  • March 2013 – Interviewed on Here’s the Thing by Alec Baldwin, Williams describes “being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe.”
  • January 2015 – On NBC Nightly News, Williams says “The helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”
  • February 2015 – In his retraction and apology, Williams says “I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. We landed after the ground fire incident and spent two harrowing nights in a sandstorm in the Iraq desert.”

At first Williams describes learning about the ground fire once they landed. Two years later, he describes it as if he saw it happen. Two years further on, the story implies his helicopter was also hit by at least small arms fire. The story gets more dramatic each time, until in January Williams said his own helicopter was “forced down after being hit by an RPG.”

“Since this story broke, I’ve been in a rage”

To critics who believe memories are stored like videotapes, that timeline documents a man who begins stretching the truth with small fibs and, as seeing them accepted, eventually moves on to a full-blown “stolen valor” lie:

For me, and many others, this is personal. We share a rage similar to that felt by war veterans who learn that a fellow soldier is taking credit for something he didn’t do. In military parlance, it’s known as “stolen valor.”
[…]
War is atrocious enough. Those who have fought it, been caught in the middle of it or chronicled its horrors know this. There’s no need for exaggeration.

What Mr. Williams did dishonored not only himself, but all those who have suffered and sacrificed: soldiers, victims and fellow storytellers alike. His bloviating self-aggrandizement is a slap in the face to anyone who has borne witness to war.

Since this story broke, I’ve been in a rage. It strikes a personal chord with me.

The writer relates his experience of being hit by an RPG, which did not explode, and his slow recovery from traumatic brain injury. But the outrage over “stolen valor” assumes that Williams knew his story was false. And that assumption may be as false as Williams’ story.

“The heroic stories are easier to latch on to”

Neuroscience shows that our memories don’t exist in anything like videotape form. We’ll explore the details more tomorrow, but our memories are stored in fragments of experience and emotion, connected to each other and to other events. Both the fragments and their connections can and do change, with the new ‘memory’ leaving out bits of one event and/or bringing in bits from another. And the timeline of Williams’ changing stories fits that process, says psychologist Elizabeth Loftus:

“I was kind of amazed by how insistent and quick people would say he was liar when there was another plausible interpretation – that he had a false memory,” Elizabeth Loftus, a distinguished professor the at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert in human memory, told CBS News. “Mostly these false memories develop and people are not even aware of why they happen.”
[…]
Loftus explains that a false memory occurs when a person comes to believe something happened that didn’t; they may have adopted an account they heard or made up, perhaps based on details that are distorted and loosely based on the truth. “Brian Williams is sort of a combination of this,” says Loftus.

Knowing he was under fire – rather than learning after they landed that another helicopter in the group was shot at – would feel more heroic. And a 2010 study found that was a common element in false memory formation:

Both false memories and confabulations are facilitated by the need for integrated and complete memories, the familiarity of the material, and the presence of self-relevant or autobiographical content. False memories and spontaneous confabulations tend to have content that is influenced by imagination and fantastic thinking with elaborative characteristics and fanciful personal narratives.

As Dr. Loftus explains:

These prestige-enhancing memory distortions help us to feel a little better about ourselves. […] The heroic stories are easier to latch on to and become memories.

In this frame, based on the science of memory, there is no “stolen valor.” There is only the ordinary human tendency to revise our memories to fit who we wish we were … without even knowing we’ve done it.

Tomorrow we’ll see just how easily and often we do that.

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Happy Thursday!