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How Brian Williams' War Memories Could Have Failed Him
When news broke that NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams misrepresented an oft-told story about being in a Chinook helicopter in Iraq in 2003 that was forced down by enemy fire, many journalists and veterans alike expressed frustration and disappointment.
In a handful of instances, notably including a 2013 interview with David Letterman and in a 2015 broadcast report about a transitioning veteran, Williams claimed that when covering the Iraq War in 2003, the Chinook helicopter he was traveling in was struck by small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire.
That’s not true, revealed by Williams’ own reporting at the time of the event, and from members of the very flight crew that operated the Chinook Williams was on. His aircraft was behind the aircraft that was hit by the rocket-propelled grenade; by some accounts, it was in an entirely different section, maybe as much as an hour behind.
Williams, one of the most recognizable and trusted names in news, garners roughly 10 million viewers a week who watch him report the day’s top stories with a measured and reliable gravitas.
On what happened in Iraq in 2003, Williams claims he misremembered.
In an interview with Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten, who broke the story through extensive and thorough reporting, Williams said, “I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”
He opened his NBC Nightly News broadcast the day after Tritten’s report and apologized on air for his mistake with the familiar poise and gravity in his voice. But his apology has done little to stem the criticism, and Williams announced he will step away from the anchor desk for an undetermined period of time to avoid becoming a distraction.
Many veterans are criticizing Williams on the grounds of stolen valor, the practice of someone with little or no military experience claiming to be a veteran or an active-duty service member, even donning poorly put-together uniforms.
“This Brian Williams RPG story reminds me of the one time I was wounded in the Battle of Stalingrad,” tweeted Paul Szoldra, a former Marine Corps mortarman and a prominent voice on modern veterans.
The military news site We Are The Mighty, where Szoldra is an executive editor, even compiled a cheeky list of famous battles and firefights where Williams also was not present.
The modern military community has developed an almost shark-to-blood relationship with stories of stolen valor. It’s a reflection of a perceived divide between Americans and their military that waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on their behalf.
In his statement Williams writes, “Nobody's trying to steal anyone's valor.”
Throughout his professional career, Williams has been a vocal supporter of the military community. In a piece published previously on Task & Purpose, our chief executive officer, Zach Iscol, defended Williams on those grounds, arguing that he has earned the benefit of the doubt.
“[Williams has] been a staunch advocate for our community since before it was cool to support the troops. Before every company and every celebrity had their own private veterans cause, Brian Williams had our backs,” Iscol writes. “He’s been there consistently for IAVA, for the Bob Woodruff Foundation, as a board member of the Medal of Honor Foundation, and many others.”
The episode has also irked journalists, as it represents a crack in the very keystone of newsgathering — credibility. In order for journalists to be effective, they have to be trusted. Several journalists, war reporters especially, seem to perceive the Williams ordeal as an affront to that credibility and reliability, committed by a man who should be a stalwart of those attributes.
Williams fills the anchor chair at the NBC Nightly News desk, a seat once held by such legends of news as Walter Cronkite and Williams' predecessor, Tom Brokaw.
Williams isn’t a war journalist, and reporters who spend their professional lives in the line of fire reacted defensively to the notion that one of journalism’s golden boys was caught telling fake war stories.
“This Brian Williams story is crazy,” tweeted David Kenner, the Middle East correspondent for Foreign Policy. “You don’t ‘misremember’ whether your helicopter was shot down by an RPG in Iraq.”
Stars and Stripes’ reporter in Afghanistan, Josh Smith, took it a step further, outright accusing Williams of lying.
“Brian Williams’ lies make journalists look worse,” Smith said on Twitter. “Luckily [Tritten’s] watchdog reporting makes journalists look better,” he added of his colleague who broke the story.
Many of these sentiments were compiled in a piece by Washington Post military reporter Dan Lamothe, who himself wrote that Williams’ claim that he incorrectly recalled the events, “does nothing to help the problem.”
Was Williams lying? Why would he do that? Why would he wittingly misrepresent the situation on the ground so egregiously more than a decade later, jeopardizing not just embarrassment, not just one of the most coveted jobs in journalism, but the very credibility that journalists hold dear?
The reaction to Williams saying he misremembered range from skepticism to accusations of lying, but Williams’ claims of memory failure may hold more weight than folks are giving it credit for.
Task & Purpose spoke with Dr. Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University. Schacter is an expert in the biological and psychological factors that affect human memory. He presently serves as the director of Harvard’s Schacter Memory Lab after spending a decade chairing the university's department of psychology.
While cautioning that it doesn’t mean Williams suffered from a memory failure, Schacter said, “It does seem incredible, but there’s related evidence out there that suggests it can happen.”
“It comes as no surprise to people who study memory to hear about something like this,” Schacter added.
Schacter said that contrary to popular belief, and to the standard Williams is being held to now, memory is not a literal recording of events as they transpired.
“It’s much more of a constructive process that is shaped by a variety of factors and is prone to error,” Schacter said.
In his statement addressing the discrepancy between the reports, Williams reaches for an explanation of how his memory could have failed him.
“I think the constant viewing of the video showing us inspecting the impact area — and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two,” Williams writes.
That’s consistent with scientific understanding on memory, according to Schacter.
“One very common way in which memory can become distorted is that people combine together bits and pieces of events that actually happened, but they combine them into an event that never happened,” Schacter said.
It’s called a memory conjunction error. As an example, Schacter described a test to demonstrate this where a person is shown a series of words. One of them is “spaniel,” and another is “varnish.” Then, the person is read another list of words, with the instruction to say yes when the person hears a word from the original list. At a high rate, people will claim to have heard the word “Spanish.” They never heard the word, but they combine the elements of it.
By virtually all accounts, Williams landed on the ground among the helicopter that was struck by ground fire, and then spent the next two or three days sleeping in the desert with the people who had just been shot at, and taking footage of the scene, inspecting the damage.
Over time, the memory of hearing their account of getting shot at, and imagining what it must of been like, may have blended with his own actual experience.
Research shows that imagination and memory are very closely related, Schacter said.
But how can someone come to imagine — and actually believe — that they were struck with an RPG when they weren’t? Many, including Kenner, the Foreign Policy journalist, find that aspect of this so unbelievable.
“Some people find it hard to believe that for such an emotionally arousing event, that you could genuinely come to believe that you were in a plane that went down due to a grenade strike,” Schacter said, “but we know that there are other kinds of emotionally arousing events that people can remember inaccurately.”
This story saw another apparent example of memory distortion with the case of Rich Krell. Krell reached out to CNN’s Brian Stetler, one of the top journalists covering the media industry, claiming to be the pilot of the Chinook helicopter that was carrying Williams on that mission.
Krell claimed to Stetler, and in a subsequent interview with CNN, said that the helicopter carrying Williams was behind the one that took the RPG, but that they also came under small arms fire. This corroborated Williams’ account of being under fire in Iraq.
All of that was false, and Krell recanted that version of events once confronted with the accounts of pilots and crew members who were actually operating Williams’ aircraft.
An article by Stetler on CNN Money quotes Krell as telling Stetler, “The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories.”
That article intricately details the painstaking lengths CNN went through to verify Krell’s claims beforehand.
Krell’s false account demonstrates two important aspects of this story: the same sort of memory failure that Williams himself had previously claimed to have suffered, and the imperfect nature of journalism.
If Williams is being honest in his claims of misremembering, the same thing happened to Krell. He took fire in his helicopter; landed in the desert and spent the next several days with Williams; and then, over the course of 12 years came to remember Williams as having been in his aircraft.
Further, in vetting Krell as a source, Stetler was virtually perfect in his journalism fundamentals, and ultimately still got the story wrong. It seems the cautionary lesson here, more than dishonesty and trust — from Williams himself, to Stetler and the CNN news team, to the journalists criticizing Williams’ failure — is that journalists are putting far too much faith in individual memory.
What’s odd in the Williams’ case, Schacter said, is that he recalled the event accurately so many times, including in its immediate aftermath, and for years later.
CNN’s Stetler compiled an extensive report detailing how the story of the helicopter flight has been told and recounted by various sources over the past 12 years.
Williams described the helicopter in front of his taking fire in multiple accounts for several years after the incident. Indeed, the first time the incident is explicitly described as Williams being under fire, it’s in an Associated Press report covering Williams’ return to Iraq in March 2007.
"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," that report read.
After that, many, but not all, of Williams’ accounts describe coming under fire or being in the helicopter that was fired upon.
“It could have gotten woven in mistakenly to his memory, maybe he had images in his mind of what it might have been like, and then eventually somehow incorporated that into his memory,” Schacter said.
In his defense of Williams, Iscol described his own experiences a decade ago writing and editing award citations for the 2004 Battle of Fallujah in Iraq, where he served as an infantry officer.
“One of the toughest parts was always finding the truth,” Iscol says. “Four Marines would go into a house and come out with six different stories.
“The truth is a fickle beast,” Iscol added.
To that end, for many who have questioned their own memories, or think Williams deserves the benefit of the doubt, it can seem more likely that he suffered a memory distortion than that he deliberately lied.
“I can’t really speak to the question of intentional deception,” cautioned Schacter.
“For me as a memory person, just looking at that incident and talking about it in the context of memory research, it’s not that shocking at all that he could at some point come to believe that what he’s saying is true,” Schacter said. “Because when you think about it, he’s on there on Letterman giving this detailed recounting … you would think he would know, if he knew in that moment that what he was saying wasn’t correct, that that could easily be checked.”
Accusations of deliberate wrongdoing seem to lack a real motive. Even without having been in the helicopter that was shot down, Williams was out in front covering the 2003 U.S. invasion, and his reporting helped earn him the top job as the NBC Nightly News anchor. He accurately reported what happened at the time of the event, and for the next several years after he had already secured the top job. Why intentionally lie or mislead now? To boost his ego?
Ego could indeed have played a role in an honest and inadvertent memory failure, according to Schacter. People often remember events in a way that makes them look good, and have no consciousness that they do it.
“There are lots of studies that show that we often remember the past in ways that enhance our own image, enhance our sense of self under conditions where people aren’t lying, they’re doing their best to remember, but there is a sort of egocentric bias that often shows up in memory,” Schacter said.
There is a bit of ego that comes across in the 2013 Letterman interview. In recounting the story and telling that his helicopter was fired upon, Letterman exclaimed, “No kidding!”
“RPG and AK-47,” Williams replied matter of factly.
“In a case like this, it could in principle be the case that what you’re seeing is a boosting of one’s self, even though he may not think he’s telling a lie,” Schacter said.
Now that Williams’ account on Letterman has been proven false, it’s easy for people to gain a sense of resentment for a man who seemed to brag about being in harm’s way, to think that he was lying to boost his own stature, and that he now deserves all of the criticism and mockery directed his way.
Ultimately, the national debate about Williams may be missing the big picture. If we take Williams at his word — or at least entertain the notion that he may not be lying — this is less about Williams’ fallibility and more about the nature of memory as a whole. That aspect of the story makes the conversations about Williams dangerous; if journalists are deaf to the realities about the unreliability of memory, they could think what happened to Williams could never happen to them.
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