Note: This essay is cross-posted at Skepticality, where it appears in easy-to-swallow podcast form.
On the Virtual Skeptics this past week, I had a good long grump about the media and how it was treating NBC news anchor Brian Williams. The short version of the story, at an event sponsored by NBC Williams gave a speech about a retiring helicopter pilot who had flown Williams while Williams was a correspondent in during the Iraq War. It sounded like that they had been through some pretty hairy stuff, because, Williams said, their helicopter was forced down by a rocket propelled grenade. Veterans who were a part of that mission disputed Williams’ version of events on social media, and soon, Williams was on the air apologizing for making misstatements.
Now as the media went back to look for more instances of Williams’ misstatements, I was all in a huff. I saw this as a wonderful opportunity to educate people about the fallibility of memory. As I was considering this, I was rather dismayed to see so many people online going on about what a liar Williams was. And these were skeptics. I didn’t think that they had any more information than I did, and surely they must have seen how we self-appointed skeptical purists were going on about how memories are unreliable. But they kept insisting that you’d remember if you were shot down or not. My sense is maybe not. I’ve had a World War II veteran who was in a unit stationed in Italy tell me that he was in the Battle of the Bulge, an impossibility.
There is the illusion of course that highly meaningful and important events are more firmly etched into our memories, but the truth of the matter is that so-called flashbulb memories, like every other memory, is subject to the same processes of change over time. But the perception, the misperception, that is, that highly significant memories are durable likely explains a general defaulting to believing the veterans like Lance Reynolds, who flew that mission and took Williams along. On facebook, Reynolds challenged Williams’ account:
Certainly, goes the logic, this event where Reynolds had just been shot at and was in harm’s way would have been more significant to him than it would be to someone on a more or less passive journalistic assignment, and therefore Reynolds would remember it. He has no incentive to lie. But Williams filed a report about this particular mission. In the online clip of that report, Tom Brokaw introduces the segment by saying that Williams had “A close call in the skies over Iraq”. He was in a Chinook helicopter. There were stories among the air crew that iraqis dressed as civilians had been shooting, and this is mentioned in the context of looking down at civilians as the Chinooks fly over their heads. We hear a radio broadcast about a helicopter that has taken fire while Williams’ group is in the air: “We took fire on the way in. We currently are NOT under fire, NOT under fire.” Williams’ Chinook is ordered down and not told why. The Chinook “ahead of them” (how far ahead is not said) has been grazed by an RPG fired from the back of a pickup truck, they realize. The crew of the helicopter did not grant an interview. The helicopters are forced to hunker down for 2 days, as there is a sandstorm. There was an armored unit there from the 3rd infantry, who coincidentally, confirm of the image of the fighters, irregulars fighting from the back of pickup trucks. Williams credits 3rd ID for looking after the perimeter. After 2 nights they leave. At the end of the report, Williams explains on their first night, they heard machine gun fire, a group of Iraqi irregulars with an RPG were stopped at the perimeter, presumably trying to get into position to shoot at the helicopters, one of which Williams was sleeping in. Ultimately a 6-hour mission became something like a 50-hour mission.
This story is NOT that different from the one that he told the crowd at Madison Square Garden. All the elements are there–only their relationship to one another is altered. Heck, he even gets the bit about the 3d ID that Reynolds apparently doesn’t remember (though you don’t see people noting the veterans’ memories are wrong too). And even Brokaw, in the introduction to the original segment, seems to dramatize what has happened a bit, maybe. But initially Williams doesn’t take any credit for anything special. The reporting seems OK. In my opinion one need not invoke deceit to explain what happened, and if you are willing to defer to what Ray Hyman called the “principle of charity,” I thought that perhaps we should not jump on him so badly. It was reasonable to think that he was guilty of nothing more than having a completely normal human brain.
So that’s kind of what I was thinking when NBC decided to slap a 6 month suspension on Williams, saying in a memo:
“By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate.”
At this announcement I was indignant. I thought, how could we waste such a brilliant opportunity to educate people about how fallible memory is? That the really interesting thing about this non-story was how normal it was? And I imagined that the people who were happily dancing around the Williams sacrificial pyre smugly confident that their memories were intact and reliable, and I was annoyed some more. My hard won skeptical superpowers had paid off. I enjoyed the most satisfying and aggravating emotion: righteous indignation. It’s so good to be right. I could just bathe in that creamy feeling all day.
Aaaand then the next day I read an article in New York Magazine suggesting that there may well be a host of other incidents where Williams’ may have exaggerated his role in stories. And at least one of them is of a type that, if it turns out to be a fabrication, will be less easily explainable. I can see his meeting the Pope at Catholic University becoming less accurate over time. I can even see him inadvertently slightly nudging himself ever closer to the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin wall as reasonable. Both accounts are questioned by the magazine, but the one that really seems like it could be his undoing is his claim about a SEAL Team 6 during the Iraq war, making friends with the SEALs and then this, according to the magazine:
He also claimed that, nearly a decade after this supposed embed, a member of SEAL Team 6 sent him a souvenir from the raid on bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. “I got a white envelope and in it was a thank-you note, unsigned,” Williams said during […] a Late Show appearance. “And in it was a piece of the fuselage of the blown-up Black Hawk in that courtyard. Sent to me by one of my friends.”
It seems improbable that the Williams would have been with a group of SEALs flying into Baghdad 3 days into the war, when US forces did not reach Baghdad until the 10th of April, about 20 days after the ground invasion began. But, unlike the way SEAL Team 6 members describe Williams as being “embedded” Williams never uses that word in the clip with Letterman. So, maybe he’s misremembering the date of his flight to Bagdhad? Like maybe it was like 3 days after the coalition reached Baghdad? But it seems super weird that one of the people he befriended sent him a piece of fuselage of the (still classified) helicopter that crashed in Bin Laden’s compound….for some reason committing what, god, has to be a major security violation. And that’s the bit that I think may well get him in trouble, because there is apparently some tangible evidence that could be checked, though the provenance is in Williams’ account to Lettermen is obscure…
BUT THERE I GO AGAIN. Pretending that I could possibly figure out what was happening among special forces 12 years ago in Iraq! On what basis? Listen, when a story appears in the media, I try to understand, and all I have to go on are narratives. I’m constantly reminding myself that these narratives are reconstructions based on memories and evidence put next to each other and assembled into something transmissible–a story. But inherent to storytelling, and I don’t think that I am equivocating on the meaning of “storytelling” here, are characters and plots, and some of these characters and plots are more transmissible in the media than others. It’s easier for a headline to say that Williams’s story is “false” than it is to say it is “inaccurate in a number of ways but perhaps understandable with a good understanding of the workings of memory” It’s easier for someone on the air to say that X journalist is a liar than it is to bring on memory experts and give the public a lesson in the weird, clever wrongness of memory and then ask the audience to filter the story through that model of memory to come up with a complicated and nuanced view of Williams as partially both engineer of his own demise and victim of human imperfection. The public wants a story; the media needs a story. And with the story comes villains and heroes, and what is Williams? I honestly have no idea.
Following this story is a frustrating exercise in humility, that just drives home hard learned lessons that I easily forget. That I have to be willing to be confused. I have to be patient. Ultimately I need to be willing to admit when I just don’t know and that that is sometimes the best, only correct answer. In the case of Brian Williams’ wartime exploits, I have a lot of information that may or may not be relevant to whether or not he is telling the truth. Currently I have no way of determining what is relevant and what is not. And I’m just going to have to be ok with that for the time being.