Did Brian Williams Really Misremember Being Shot At?

I like NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams. My wife and I DVR his nightly newscast and, on nights we can find the time, we watch at least the “A block” of his newscast. So it’s entirely possible that my favorable feelings toward Mr. Williams are coloring my perspective on a story that emerged late today about a major event he got wrong.

For several years, Williams has been telling a story about being in a helicopter that was shot down while covering the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the story wasn’t true. According to Stars and Stripes

“NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams admitted Wednesday he was not aboard a helicopter hit and forced down by RPG fire during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, a false claim that has been repeated by the network for years.”

Brian Williams

This afternoon, after being challenged online by several soldiers who were on that plane, Williams admitted in a Facebook post (transcribed by The Wrap) that he misremembered the story:

“To Joseph, Lance, Jonathan, Pate, Michael and all those who have posted: You are absolutely right and I was wrong. In fact, I spent much of the weekend thinking I’d gone crazy. I feel terrible about making this mistake, especially since I found my OWN WRITING about the incident from back in ’08, and I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG in the tail housing just above the ramp. Because I have no desire to fictionalize my experience (we all saw it happened the first time) and no need to dramatize events as they actually happened, 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, and I apologize. I certainly remember the armored mech platoon, meeting Capt. Eric Nye and of course Tim Terpak. Shortly after they arrived, so did the Orange Crush sandstorm, making virtually all outdoor functions impossible. I honestly don’t remember which of the three choppers Gen. Downing and I slept in, but we spent two nights on the stowable web bench seats in one of the three birds. Later in the invasion when Gen. Downing and I reached Baghdad, I remember searching the parade grounds for Tim’s Bradley to no avail. My attempt to pay tribute to CSM Terpak was to honor his 23+ years in service to our nation, and it had been 12 years since I saw him. The ultimate irony is: In writing up the synopsis of the 2 nights and 3 days I spent with him in the desert, I managed to switch aircraft. Nobody’s trying to steal anyone’s valor. Quite the contrary: I was and remain a civilian journalist covering the stories of those who volunteered for duty. This was simply an attempt to thank Tim, our military and Veterans everywhere — those who have served while I did not.”

He also offered a rather glib apology tonight on NBC Nightly News:

Many people on Twitter are questioning how anyone—much less a news anchor—could somehow confuse being shot at. I understand where they’re coming from. But memory is notoriously unreliable, and as difficult as it might be to believe, it’s at least possible that Williams is telling the truth.

According to Dr. John Medina, the author of Brain Rules:

“Our brains give us only an approximate view of reality, because they mix new knowledge with past memories and store them together as one.”

Therefore, there are two possibilities here: That his was an honest error, or that he’s a liar. I’d very much like to believe that it’s the former, and that possibility shouldn’t be immediately dismissed. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But I wouldn’t stop there. I’ve learned through the years that people who make up stories are usually repeat offenders. Therefore, NBC News has an obligation to review any other similar stories Mr. Williams has told about his past and determine their accuracy. Williams should welcome such a review—if he’s telling the truth, such a review would only serve to enhance his credibility and help confirm his explanation.

Either way, this incident is a devastating blow to his credibility—regardless of how it happened, he blew the story. And, as the tweet below (and many more like it) shows, he’s become a target of mockery.

Brian Williams Mocked

This reputational crisis isn’t likely to end immediately. Journalists and bloggers are already picking over the details of how Mr. Williams has told this story in the past (The Poynter Institute and The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple have already posted excellent articles.) In the meantime, the pressure on NBC to take some type of meaningful disciplinary action against their lead anchor will be tremendous.

UPDATE: February 4, 2015, 9:05pm

A reader pointed out that Brian Williams seemed quite comfortable telling his false story on The Late Show With David Letterman. Even if his recollection of this story was due to a “false memory,”  this will serve as a huge hit to his credibility. For balance, though, it’s also worth reading this article in The New Yorker, which shows how faulty human memory can be, especially during dramatic events.  

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NEW: Don’t miss my follow-up post, “What Is Brian Williams’ Best Crisis Management Strategy?