Posted by Jay Livingston
I don’t think Brian Williams was lying. Obviously he wasn’t telling the truth. The helicopter he was in was not hit by an RPG. But a lie is a deliberate falsehood – telling people something that you know to be untrue. Surely Williams is not so stupid as to think that he could get away with such a fabrication. He would have little to gain, and, as we are seeing, much to lose.
Instead, I think it was what Williams says it was – messed-up memory. At some point in his recalling and recounting of the incident, he swapped in someone else’s experience for his own. After all, he was in the same place, he was in a helicopter, and did talk with the soldiers whose chopper was hit. So maybe he was feeling roughly the same emotions that he imagined they felt.
Once that idea became embedded in his mind, he constructed a story that fit. And the more often he told that story, the clearer and sharper it became both as a coherent narrative and as a memory.
Robert Krulwich too is a non-print journalist. He’s worked at ABC, CBS, and NPR. Take four and a half minutes and watch this video. It’s an animated version of a “This American Life” story showing how Krulwich appropriated an anecdote that happened to his wife. He would regale friends with the anecdote, recounting it as an eyewitness, when in fact he had only heard about it second-hand from his wife. Yet he was absolutely convinced that he was there.
Should Krulwich be banned from the media? Should we distrust everything that he has ever reported?
What Krulwich and Williams did is something we all do. Forty years of research about memory has shown that memory is not a camcorder; it’s an editing program. We edit – dropping some details, altering, sharpening, and even adding others. We hit “Save,” and when we next call up the memory, we are opening not the original but the most recent edit of the file.
Unfortunately, most people still think of memory as a camcorder, and they are convinced that if someone remembers something that is not true, he must be lying and is therefore untrustworthy.* They’re wrong, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t see how Williams is going to survive this one.
* Reaction to bad memory is not quite so simple. In this case, politics plays a part. Over on the right, the air is thick with schadenfreude over Williams’s troubles. Those same delighted folks were much more forgiving of Ronald Reagan’s memory lapses and conflation of movies with reality.