Last week I discussed Brian Williams and the events leading up to his professional predicament and his crisis response to the subsequent public outcry.
The public outcry was one of two responses. First, silence from the people who knew him, but could not defend his error. There was no response that would not sound hypocritical and like an excuse to what seemed to be a blatant lie. Second, the response from other view of the discussion was far more direct and accused directly him of lying.
The error was additionally magnified by Williams’ position of trust as a highly regarded and trusted news voice in the US. According to a 2014 survey, ABC News and NBC News (Williams’ employer) were both tied as the most well known and most trusted television news sources by both US liberals and conservatives.  His error is considered especially egregious because he “betrayed” his integrity as a journalist.
The major talking points in the media were that he lied to aggrandize himself and he lied which betrayed the integrity and professionalism of the news media. Neither option is good, but like everything else in the world I don’t think the conclusions are that simple. The events leading up to the crisis are so well known that it presents a great opportunity to examine memory and it how it (as I understand it) works.
(Please, refer to the time line at the end of the article.)
My question is did he really lie? I am not contesting that he told an untruth. There is no doubt that what he said was proven to be wrong.
But, did he lie?
What science knows about memory
The popular belief is that we are perfect recording machines. Within our brains are perfect records of a lifetime of audio and visual memories. Recalling a memory is our brain playing back these perfect recollections.
That could not be further from the truth.
The brain actually reconstructs episodic memories and creates a narrative in which you play the main character. As part of the narrative you are, by the way, good, heroic, highly skilled and kind, according to your mind’s eye. The brain borrows from different kinds of memories and fills in the gaps with bias, estimations, and best approximation. There are several psychological effects that can cause the narrative to drift away from the true historical facts of an event as memories are contaminated. You can have a good memory and a trained memory, but nobody has a perfect memory. There are documented a very few people with exceptional memories that function in very restricted areas, but beyond those restrictions these savants are just as fallible.
The misinformation effect is the first, and one of the most important, phenomena to Williams’ case. Misinformation is when the accuracy of memories is influenced by post-event information. Study after study shows that people will misremember events by filling in memory gaps with more recent information. How does that apply to the Williams chronology? Let’s review it:
March 26, 2003 – The baseline, accurate memory
Williams’ original report indicated that a helicopter in front of his was hit.
NBC publishes a book with the first piece of misinformation. The book implies that his helicopter sustained fire (it did not).
Williams discusses the attack with Tim Russert on CNBC. The basic story is still there, but the narrative shifts a little to describe the attackers and their actions almost as if he was an eyewitness.
Sept. 27, 2007
In a blog posting, Williams gives more detail, but the original story still holds
May 12, 2008
Another blog post. Williams uses the word “we”, “We came under fire by what appeared to be Iraqi farmers… ”. The “we” is now unclear, does he mean “we” as in the four Chinooks or “we” as in our helicopter. The eye witness detail of the attackers seems reinforced again.
March 4, 2013
In an interview with Alec Baldwin, Williams states that he was in a helicopter in Iraq that was taking fire. (He was not.) He tells Baldwin he thought he could have died.
March 26, 2013
Williams tells David Letterman the story and reinforces again his helicopter was hit. He mentions the RPG and AK47 fire. He claims his helicopter was hit, but is unclear what exactly hit his aircraft.
Jan. 30, 2015
Williams explicitly states that the helicopter in which he was riding was hit by an RPG round and forced to land.
Jan. 31, 2015
The storm begins.
It is the detailed, incremental changes to the narrative that slowly became story in the passage of time. Each time that he retold the story, the changes became his most recent “facts” and recalled as memories. What he remembered clearly was not the event, but his latest memory of the story he told to others. The story shifted from an unplanned landing in support of a damaged helicopter to a first person drama that almost ended tragically.
I do not think there is a “why” to this effect. Misinformation is the mortar that helps to reconstruct our memories. When events are recent, the facts are large cement blocks held together with the minimum of cement. In the passage of time, facts erode to stone nuggets held together with a generous supply of mortar to rebuild the memories to the approximate shape and size of the original event as best as we can recall.
There are two additional factors that contribute to the self-deception: confabulation and the self-servicing bias.
Confabulation “Confabulation (verb: confabulate) is a memory disturbance, defined as the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive.”
The important difference between confabulation and lying is that lying is intentional deceit, confabulation is memory distortion. Confabulation most often occurs in the brain’s autobiographical memory which is the narrative of self. The reconstructed memories are so real, people are unaware of the self-deception and are confident of their recall even when presented with contrary evidence.
Williams’ public persona was exceedingly well trusted and respected as a journalist. If he participated in any deception, it was self-deception. The source material was too public and too readily available to suggest an intentional public lie.
The self-serving bias is a cognitive process that reinforces self-esteem. If you pass a test, you passed because you are intelligent or prepared well. If you fail a test, the teacher has poor teaching skills. Whichever the case, your self-esteem is intact.
The self-serving bias seems appropriate because I imagine Williams experienced a tremendous amount of positive feedback every time he told the story. As it changed, it became more dramatic, more personal, and more satisfying.
We all want to be the hero or at least highly regarded, especially to ourselves.
People are not perfect though we think we are. Brain sciences have shown over and over that our brain peeks out of our skull and reconstructs a model of the world between our ears. We interact with and make prediction about the world from within that model.
We reconstruct our lives and our memories every day. The brain uses shortcuts to filter out most of the sensory input. The sensory filter allows us to function on autopilot until some attention is required. We retrieve memories piece by piece and fill the gaps with our best approximation.
It is complicated.
I have no soap box to speak from and no spin to apply. I think science can make a very reasonable explanation of what happen to Williams and, if everyone is honest, it has happened to us too; just perhaps not on such a grand scale in full view of the nation.
The proven existence of the misinformation effect, confabulation, and self-bias are more than enough to account for the accumulation of errors to a 12 years old story. It is not an accident that eyewitness testimony is considered the worst evidence in any legal proceeding, people are unreliable as evidence.
For those who would argue the issue of journalistic integrity, I say, it is laudable, but an idealistic notion of perfection. Everyone does their best to be ethical and checks and balances are in place to present facts: peer review by editors, multiple sources, etc. To impose a rule of perfection on anyone is unrealistic and unfair. To impose a punishment without examining the facts and determining the intention is unfair. A good system allows the possibility of human fallibility and makes provisions for mitigating circumstances.
More importantly, Williams was accused of poor integrity that implies intentional, explicit deceit. Like confabulation, the integrity issue requires willful deceit. I am not seeing evidence of that intention.
What about Brian Williams’ integrity or professionalism? I will say that he has worked as an NBC News journalist for 22 years and as the NBC network anchorman for the last 11 years. As a public figure, his life was well documented on video. From my outside view, I do not perceive a motive to lie. There was too much risk because, as did happen, there was bound to be videotaped documentation of his words. If he was a habitual liar or had other integrity issues, they would have shown up in additional videos or in the testimonies of current and former colleagues.
If nothing else exhibits Williams’ integrity, it was how quickly he apologized and removed himself from the public eye. That decision was appropriate and valiant.
I am willing to give Williams a break. He seems like a good guy and I hope he lands back on his feet.
Timeline of Brian Williams’ statements on Iraqi helicopter attack
By Lauren Carroll on Thursday, February 5th, 2015 at 2:01 pm.
March 26, 2003 – Williams’ original report indicated that a helicopter in front of his was hit:
September 2003: NBC publishes a book, “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” in which they describe Williams’ experience, implying that his helicopter sustained fire:
March 2005: According to CNN, Williams discussed the incident with late journalist Tim Russert on CNBC:
Sept. 27, 2007 – Williams wrote a blog post recalling the incident, where it’s unclear if his helicopter was attacked:
May 12, 2008: Williams writes another blog, responding to a note from a soldier who he met in Iraq. In this post, Williams indicates that he was in a helicopter that took fire:
March 4, 2013: In an interview with actor Alec Baldwin on WNYC’s Here’s the Thing, Williams said he thought he could have died during the attack:
March 26, 2013: On the 10th anniversary of his helicopter ride, Williams recounted the experience with late night talk show host David Letterman,
Jan. 30, 2015: Williams retold the story on NBC Nightly News. The broadcast shows Williams with a soldier at a New York Rangers hockey game at Madison Square Garden, where the game announcer told the story over a loudspeaker:
Feb. 4, 2015: Williams apologized for saying that he rode in a helicopter that sustained fire and clarified his remarks on NBC Nightly News.
 Wayne Weiten (2010). Psychology: Themes and Variations: Themes and Variations. Cengage Learning. p. 338. ISBN 978-0-495-60197-5.
 Vornik, L.; Sharman, Stefanie; Garry, Maryanne (2003). “The power of the spoken word: Sociolinguistic cues influence the misinformation effect”. Memory 11 (1): 101–109. doi:10.1080/741938170.
About Ken Wrede
[…] I recently discussed Bill O’Reilly’s media crisis (here). He responded to his critics and the crisis terribly. I also discussed Brian Williams’ crisis and the mitigating circumstances that I believe contributed to a faulty memory recollection that blew up into a media frenzy (here). […]