By Chuck Ross
Let’s first check in with Ken Auletta, the New Yorker’s veteran media columnist and reporter. In a piece posted on the New Yorker website yesterday, Feb 5, 2014, Auletta said he that when he first heard that Williams’ story wasn’t true he “thought of it as just evidence of a very familiar human foible. Most of us can’t later account for why our egos sometimes get the best of us.”
But after watching Williams’ apology, Auletta wrote “It sounded like a statement crafted by a P.R. team intent on damage control. It sounded as if it had been composed by the same P.R. team that crafted Mitt Romney’s explanation” of the 47% of us who Romney said were “victims” who were “dependent on government.”
Auletta’s conclusion: ”[J]ournalists are supposed to be more transparent than the politicians we cover. We’re unpopular, in part, because we don’t practice the transparency we preach. Brian Williams believes that journalism is a noble calling, and he has often honored that calling. But by resorting to spin he let down more than ‘some brave military men and women.’”
By the way, in this roundup we’re giving you the flavor of what was written. In each instance we urge you to click on the links in this item that will take you to each of the complete original articles.
Travis Tritten, the reporter for Stars and Stripes, the official newspaper for the U.S. armed services – and the reporter who broke the story that Williams was not on that helicopter, wrote, “Apologies by ‘NBC Nightly News’ anchor Brian Williams for a false claim of being on a helicopter forced down by Iraqi rocket fire in 2003 satisfied some soldiers who were there but left a few insisting that details were still misrepresented.”
Tritten adds that “David Luke, a former soldier and flight engineer with the 159th Aviation Regiment who was aboard a helicopter flying along with the one carrying Williams and his NBC crew…said he thought the apology came only because soldiers challenged Williams’ version and otherwise, ‘he would have told that war story until he was on his dying bed.’
“Mike O’Keeffe, who was a door gunner on the Chinook hit by RPGs, said he was generally satisfied with the apology and no longer wanted to press the issue by making public comments.”
Interestingly, Tritten’s account also has this: “former Chinook pilot Rich Krell…told CNN that he was flying Williams’ aircraft during the mission. Krell told CNN that Williams’ plane did suffer minor damage from small-arms fire but did not say the damage was enough to force him to land. ‘Yeah, he messed up some things and said some things he shouldn’t have,’ Krell told CNN, referring to Williams.
“Krell’s version was at odds with the recollections of both Luke and Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the aircraft carrying Williams and his crew. Miller and Luke insisted separately that aircraft in their formation did not take ground fire that day and landed in Iraq only because of the sandstorm, which paralyzed coalition operations for days.”
This “Rashomon”-like remembrance of the people who were actually there at the time is very common. Eyewitnesses to the same event regularly remember and describe details differently. Our memories are not as trustworthy as we’d like to believe, and our remembrance of events over time can indeed change.
That’s actually the subject of a piece about the Williams incident posted yesterday on the CNN website by Dr. Ford Vox, who practices brain injury medicine at the Shepherd Center hospital in Atlanta.
Writes Dr. Vox: “Critics are piling on and hoping to put the newsman’s essential credibility in question. That’s a currency without which he can’t do his job….Like any good controversy, the affair has already launched a few social media hashtags, including #BrianWilliamsMisremembers, which pillories Williams by placing him at the center of world events in which he had no part.
“While no one can rule out [that] Williams and NBC set out in a craven and intentional attempt to misappropriate valor from a dramatic wartime scenario, or even a well-intentioned white lie…it’s also possible he’s suffered an all-too-natural memory error.
Dr. Vox continues, “We don’t call single false memories like this a disease because they’re in fact normal, right alongside your occasionally forgotten car keys, your missing wallet or even your misremembered conversation….
“You may wonder how it’s possible that Williams tricked himself into such a vivid false memory told in such detail. He did experience some aspects of the events. Though he wasn’t in the Chinook that took a hit, he landed in that forward position with it. He formed bonds with the servicemen around him. He felt vulnerability and stress during that period.”
Then Vox adds this explanation of how our memory works:
“Williams has told his story many times before, and each time he tells it, he is retrieving it. Errors happen during memory retrieval all the time, just as errors happen in cell division; biology isn’t computer science. Furthermore, he is subtly modifying his memory with his every retelling. Revisions occur as the memory is re-encoded based on what’s going on at the time he tells the story. Circumstances like a gabby, friendly free-wheeling interview with David Letterman [see that interview below].
“The emotions he’s feeling when he’s retelling the story also infect the original memory. The NBC videos of the downed Chinook that he’s viewed repeatedly are dredged up as well.”
Vox then explains the scientific studies that show that memory can indeed be manipulated (and far more easily than it was done in “Inception”).
Vox’s conclusion: “There’s no doubt Brian Williams has made a serious journalistic error for which he must atone. At the same time we should show him some sympathy for an embarrassing bug in the mental hardware all humans share.”
Next there’s a thought-provoking piece by James Fallows, a longtime reporter for The Atlantic magazine and currently its national correspondent. In a piece about the Williams incident published on the website of The Atlantic yesterday he wrote:
“I still find it just about incomprehensible that someone: (a) whose professional background involves observing and reporting events, (b) who holds one of the handful of jobs in the world most reliant on trustworthiness, and (c) who knew he was talking to an audience of millions of people that would (d) include others with first-hand knowledge of the incident, would nonetheless (e) “misremember” what must have been one of the most dramatic and traumatic moments of his life, after (f) accurately reporting the event for the first few years after it took place, and (g) when the whole thing is only a dozen years in the past, not somewhere in the fog of distant childhood memory.”
Fallows later adds:
What I find hard to imagine is telling a story I wasn’t 100 percent sure of, in public, with the detail, drama, and certainty Williams used in his famous session with David Letterman less than two years ago. The relevant part starts at around time 3:40. It is worth watching the few minutes that follow, knowing what we do now. (This video has the bonus of Italian subtitles.)
Fallows then makes a political point, that he notes is also made by blogger Andrew Tyndall, who writes an online column about the nightly newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC. And that’s how Williams’ false story was so tied up with his seeming need to closely identify himself with our troops. Then Fallows says he agrees with Tyndall when Tyndall writes “So the editorial importance of the fib Williams told is not only that it displays a reflexive desire toward identification with the military; it also represents his own newscast’s self-disqualification as a dispassionate journalistic observer of the Pentagon’s role in the domestic body politic and the nation’s foreign policy.”
Finally, there’s this fascinating and revealing piece by Bill Toland in this morning’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Toland writes in his article, in part, about a 2007 book, “Memories Were Made, But Not By Me” by the psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliott Aronson.
In the book they write about an incident involving former ‘NBC Nightly News’ anchor Tom Brokaw.
Writes Toland, “Mr. Brokaw, after being elevated to the ‘Nightly News’ anchor desk, was asked by Time magazine about his most difficult interview to date. Mr. Brokaw mentioned an interview he’d done with writer and intellectual Gore Vidal, back when Mr. Brokaw was one of the hosts of the ‘Today’ show: ‘I wanted to talk politics, and he wanted to talk about bisexuality,’ Mr. Brokaw said.
“In fact, the exact opposite had happened, according to the ‘Mistakes Were Made’ book:
Brokaw started by saying, “You’ve written a lot about bisexuality …” but Vidal cut him off, saying, “Tom, let me tell you about these morning shows. It’s too early to talk about sex. Nobody wants to hear about it at this hour, or if they do, they are doing it. Don’t bring it up.” “Yeah, uh, but Gore, uh, you have written a lot about bisex…” Vidal interrupted, saying that his new book had nothing to do with bisexuality and he’d rather talk about politics. Brokaw tried once more, and Vidal again declined, saying, “Now let’s talk about Carter.”
“So was Mr. Brokaw lying about the Vidal interview? Not exactly, Ms. Tavris and Mr. Aronson write:
“Most of us, most of the time, are neither telling the whole truth nor intentionally deceiving. … All of us, as we tell our stories, add details and omit inconvenient facts; we give the tale a small, self-enhancing spin; that spin goes over so well that the next time we add a slightly more dramatic embellishment — [until] what we remember may not have happened that way, or even may not have happened at all.”