Well, that’s the big question isn’t it? We all now know Brian Williams’ recent account of being on a helicopter that was shot down is not accurate. But did he lie?
There is a difference between being wrong and being a liar.
It is a well-known, scientific truth that human memories are imperfect. Memories are not written in a write-once/read-many medium. Brains are not hard disks. Or ink on paper. Or carvings in stone.
According to modern neuroscience, each time a memory is remembered, it is re-experienced. And that re-experienced experience itself is an experience that can be remembered. As in the game of telephone, errors can creep in and become mixed with the original memory. That’s why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable.
To classify someone as a liar is to make an assertion about their intent. It is to claim knowledge not only of the person’s actions, but of their intentions. And, of course, we can never really know another person’s intentions with absolute, 100% certainty. Instead, we can only consider all the evidence at our disposal to draw the most reasonable inference about their intentions.
When we do that with Brian Williams, what do we find, and what can we reasonably conclude?
Brian Williams is the trusted face of NBC news. In an industry, above most others, that places a premium on trustworthiness, being labelled a “liar” would likely be career-ending. It seems reasonable to believe that Brian Williams, as a long time member of that industry would realize this and would not lightly risk such a characterization.
Looking back, we can see that Mr. Williams story did not simply appear in it’s most recent form, all at once. Rather it morphed over time.
And then there is his recent apology. Through his on-air statements and his comments on the NBC Facebook page, Brian Williams asserts:
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.
Add to all this, the account of another helicopter pilot, Rich Krell. Mr. Krell was the pilot of the helicopter carrying Brian Williams that day. Initially, Mr. Krell came forward to say that while his helicopter was not the one forced down by gunfire, it was one of three that did take gunfire. Later, upon further reflection, Mr. Krell backed away from his initial account, saying:
The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories.
Mr. Williams should have known that being labelled a liar could end a stellar career. There seems little need to embellish this particular story. Being grounded for two or three days due to hostile fire is still a spectacular story, even if it was not your helicopter that took the brunt of the fire.
We know that, over time, memories drift. Things get misremembered. We’ve seen Mr. Williams’ accounts of the event have morphed over time, rather than appearing out of the blue. It’s not like he all of a sudden remembered chasing the Boston Marathon bomber. Rather, his story differs incrementally from an acknowledged event, just as we might expect of fallible human memory. We’ve also seen an example of the changing recollection of the same event by another person who was present at the time.
On top of this, I recall many anecdotes from my own life where memories have morphed. I’ve been married for over 32 years. During that time, Carol and I have started, operated, and sold businesses. We’ve built a family, travelled, read books, and much more. We’ve had a rich life which has generated many, many memories. But I know, for a fact, that some of those memories are flawed. On more than one occasion, telling of this event or that, Carol or someone else points out that I’ve got the story wrong. Perhaps I told of myself doing something when actually it was Carol that did it. Or I attributed a particular quote to one daughter when actually it was the other who said it. I’m sure there are many other examples. Do these make me a liar? I don’t think so. Maybe you do.
Is Brian Williams a liar? Or was he simply mistaken? A victim of his own humanness?
I’m willing to give Brian Williams the benefit of the doubt.