Brian Williams and the Mists of Memory

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I believe Brian Williams’ story about Iraq. Let me rephrase that: I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the NBC anchorman’s on-air apology for embellishing his 2003 war correspondent experiences in Iraq. I also find plausible his explanation that he “made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago.”

That’s what our memories do. They trick us sometimes.

Brian Williams was in Iraq in 2003, covering the war—there’s footage to prove it—and has no reason to exaggerate what he went through. But he did. It seems that the U.S. Army Chinook helicopter that ferried Williams to a battle zone was not hit by an enemy’s rocket, which Williams has been claiming for the last couple of years.

Several soldiers, including two of the unit’s pilots who were present, consider the winsome NBC star a liar. When the military newspaper Stars and Stripes broke this story, another pilot named Rich Krell told a CNN reporter that Williams had some details right and others wrong. Williams had flown with him, Krell said, and although they weren’t hit by an RPG, as Williams claimed, their chopper was in the shooting zone and had taken small arms fire.

The next day, Krell seemed to recant. “The information I gave you was true based on my memories,” he told CNN correspondent Brian Stelter, “but at this point I am questioning my memories.”

Surely, the suits at NBC, and Williams himself, winced when Krell backed away. But the former pilot’s explanation is a caution to us all. “For the past 12 years,” he said, “I have been trying to forget everything that happened in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Let’s pause and consider what he’s saying. The implication is that human memory is not a digital record of what actually occurred. It is a tool we employ to make sense of the world, and our place in it. But it is an imperfect tool, as Hillary Clinton can attest.

Campaigning for president in 2008, Mrs. Clinton invoked a 1996 visit to Bosnia with her daughter Chelsea. “I remember landing under sniper fire,” Hillary said.

Mrs. Clinton may have “remembered” it that way, but that’s not how it happened, as other eyewitnesses and news footage revealed. When critics pounced, Clinton grudgingly conceded that she “did misspeak.” This only shows, she added, “that I am a human being, like everybody else.” The non-apology seemed graceless, but Mrs. Clinton’s point about her flight of fancy is exactly right: Misremembering is almost endemic to the human condition.

“When I was young, I could remember anything, whether it happened or not,” Mark Twain once quipped. But misremembering events is a real issue, with serious consequences. It is also inevitable among storytellers -- journalists as well as politicians. Perhaps you know the game “telephone.” You put people in a circle, and someone whispers a brief set of facts into the ear of the person next to them, and it goes around the group. The final telling is inevitably much different from the first version.

New research shows that the same dynamic is in play when we tell stories ourselves. In the retelling, new details are introduced, others dropped. We aren’t recalling the original set of events, but rather our last retelling of it. “Memories aren’t static,” explains Northwestern University researcher Donna Bridge. “If you remember something in the context of a new environment and time … your memories might integrate the new information.”

We are not talking about journalistic hoaxes, or false claims of rape or abuse. We are talking about people of goodwill who are certain their memories are correct. But they aren’t. McGill University professor Karim Nader believes the very act of recalling a set of events changes our memory of them. It would be as if the act of playing music on a record player altered the tune or lyrics slightly—or more than slightly.

The implication this conveys for eyewitness testimony in criminal trials is fairly profound. It suggests, for one thing, that real-time accounts are more accurate and reliable than massaged testimony told many times.

Viewed this way, it’s the story that never changes that is suspect. In a Raymond Chandler short story published 65 years before Brian Williams went to Iraq, a private eye is being questioned by a homicide detective about a murder he witnessed. “I told it three times,” he says. “Once for him to get the outline, once for him to get the details and once for him to see if I had it too pat.”

The point here is that the story that never changes is not being remembered, it’s being recited.

Williams’ critics have produced timelines showing how his accounts from Iraq became more lurid with each passing year. They’ve done the same with Williams’ Hurricane Katrina recollections. All that proves, as Hillary Clinton noted, is that he’s human.

If this is how memory works, a professional journalist should be on guard—and it’s certainly fair to criticize Williams for winging it the way he does. But that’s a much different thing from calling the man a liar and demanding his firing. One former U.S. Marine named Zach Iscol agrees. On Friday, he urged his fellow veterans to accept Williams’ apology.

“Exactly 10 years ago, I was responsible for writing and editing dozens of awards for Marines in our company who had fought in the Battle of Fallujah,” Iscol noted. “One of the toughest parts was always finding the truth. Four Marines would go into a house and come out with six different stories.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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