The issue for me regarding the Brian Williams scandal is whether he made a mistake or intentionally misled people by making a claim he knew was false, i.e., lied. To conclude that a mistake is actually a lie requires a lot of proof. Otherwise, if there is a possible explanation of an honest memory mistake, I give the person the benefit of the doubt.
Williams said that in 2003 he was in a helicopter forced down by enemy fire — a mistaken recollection, as he told Stars and Stripes on Feb. 4. He said that the mistake was a result of “constant viewing” of video showing him inspecting the impact area of the helicopters downed in the incident and “the fog of memory over 12 years made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”
There is substantial memory research that suggests Williams could have unintentionally suffered a precise type of memory distortion.
Harvard Professor Daniel Schacter, who has been doing memory research for more than 30 years, told the Los Angeles Times about a common memory error that resembles what Williams has described as “conflation” — “when people combine bits and pieces of things that happened into an event that never happened, but contains elements of what really did happen. It’s possible something along these lines occurred here.”
Memory research Professor Lawrence Patihis of the University of California, Irvine told a New Republic reporter about his study in which he mentioned video footage of Flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001. One in five participants said they remembered seeing it. No such footage exists.
“In the case of Brian Williams,” Patihis said, “perhaps he revisited the news story many years after the 2003 incident, and perhaps the footage he saw was incorrectly woven into a new narrative of what happened. … We should take care before assuming deliberate deception here. As a memory researcher, I find it credible that Brian Williams had a genuine memory error.”
Take the case of one of the helicopter pilots, Richard Krell, who told CNN last Thursday that he was flying the helicopter that Williams was on in Iraq in 2003. While he contradicted Williams’s claim that that helicopter had taken fire and was forced down, he also said that the three helicopters in the formation, which included the one Williams was on, came under “small arms fire.”
Yet the very next day, on Friday morning, Krell read about other helicopter pilots telling the New York Times that they, not Krell, had piloted Williams’s helicopter and, unlike Krell, did not recall their convoy coming under fire. Krell texted CNN media reporter Brian Stelter: “The information I gave you was true based on my memories, but at this point I am questioning my memories.”
You read that correctly.
The media seems to have ignored this. Why is Krell allowed to make an honest mistake of memory while Williams is not? Double standard?
It would be fair if everyone could withhold judgment and let NBC complete its investigation of this incident and any other alleged discrepancies in Williams’s prior reporting. Even better, NBC might consider bringing in a credible outside investigator to review the results or conduct his or her own investigation.
Then I hope that NBC and Williams will follow Crisis Management Rule 101 and be completely transparent: Publish the results of the investigation(s) and make Williams and everyone with any involvement in this incident — the camera crew, producers back home, management in New York — available to answer every possible question from the media.
Some may be convinced it was an honest memory error; some may never be convinced. But I hope, if no new examples of proven distortions surface, that Brian Williams will be allowed to go back to work and can re-earn the trust that so many of us have had in him over the years. If so, we will not lose this good man and great journalist on the air every night on “NBC Nightly News.”
Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, LEVICK. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).