The Unreliability of Memory—What Brian Williams Did Was Not a Sin

By John Aloysius Farrell


Brian Williams reporting from Iraq in 2007.

For what it is worth, Brian Williams department.

Story 1. When I was about five years old, my parents took my sister and me to Yellowstone. While there (in those days when the cute bears came right up to your car for a handout) a mule deer wandered towards us at a rest stop. I took a snapshot (in those days deer were not common nuisances for easterners) with an old Kodak camera-for-kids. And prized it for 50 years. Until a few months ago, when my older sister informed me that she took the photograph: had a vivid memory of doing so. Since she was in charge of the camera on the trip, and it is a well-framed picture, she is probably correct. And yet I have a clear memory of stalking and photographing the deer.

Story 2. In the early 1980s my editor at the Baltimore News American (now famous dog whisperer Jon Katz) assigned me the task of profiling every homicide in Baltimore for a year (this was a few years before David Simon). So I dug through, I think it was, 283 cases—court files, police records, psychiatric reports. The lesson I learned is that human testimony is hideously flawed. Not enough to throw out the whole criminal justice system but enough—as Serial fans learned—to leave gaping holes and big Huh?s in any reasonable observer’s mind. Twenty years later, for The Boston Globe, I spent almost a year examining every death penalty case in the United States and reached the same conclusion. Most folks on death row did their crime, but the process of getting that conviction is scary, because so much relies on human constancy and memory. The DNA revolution, of course, has given us a vivid glimpse of the results.

Story 3. I moved on to biography. And if I thought court testimony was flawed, I reached a whole new level of non reliability with oral history and (though I had pretty much learned this from interviewing folks as a newspaperman) one-on-one interviews. I’ll cite just one case from my Tip O’Neill book: a famous one from the 1950s where either 1) a congressional investigator or 2) a congressional investigator and a Globe reporter, pawed their way through thousands of long distance call slips to find the evidence that helped nail White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams and killed the Boston Herald’s application for a TV license. I interviewed both men. One insisted he was alone, the second insisted they went as a duo.

Which is all a way of saying that, like Ronald Reagan freeing concentration camp victims and Hillary Clinton taking sniper fire in Bosnia, what Brian Williams did was very human. It is something we all do, time and again. He came to believe what he wanted to believe—like I wanted to believe that I took the photo of that deer. And in telling the story, over and again in public, it solidified in his memory as an honest recollection. It is an embarrassing human flaw, especially when made on a grand scale by a politician or a news anchor, but no more a sin than a fart on a first date. We can josh him and watch SNL roast him and rejoice that this handsome rich guy screwed up like the rest of us, but it is more an endearing story of our common fallibility than of some grievous journalistic violation for which he should be punished.

There is a reason for folk wisdom: Memory plays tricks.
Also see: True or False? When Memories Play Tricks from the National Science Foundation.
Author’s note: Having published biographies of Tip O’Neill and Clarence Darrow, I am in the final stages of writing a single-volume biography of Richard Nixon for Doubleday, to be published next year. It has its own Facebook page called Richard Nixon: An American Tragedy.



  1. Bill Walker says

    From a completely different perspective, part of the problem here is the cult of journalist as star, and Williams’ need to place himself at the center of the story. I forgive his mistake of memory, but not the marketing of journalists as celebrities who tell moving anecdotes about their work to late-night talk show hosts.

    When you think that you are the story you are more likely to embellish a little here, a little there, and pretty soon you’ve fabricated a memory and honestly don’t remember what really happened.

  2. Michael Putzel says

    Jack, we do know that memories are fragile, and we know that our memories change. Having spent five years reconstructing battles by interviewing participants in them, I can attest that people remember the same events quite differently.

    But I also agree with one of the vets quoted in an account of the Williams debacle that when you’ve been shot at, you remember it. Is it an innocent “mistake” when a reporter trained to accurately describe events gives such widely varying accounts over time?

  3. John Aloysius Farrell says

    Of course you remember if you are shot at, Mike. Near misses are vivid and hard to forget. I remember distinctly the one time a bullet went whizzing by me, who I was with and what they said and did. But Williams admits to concocting a memory when he was not shot at, but another helicopter on his mission was. And as he remembered it over the years, he says, his brain formed a narrative that conflated the story and placed him in risk and made him a slightly more heroic war correspondent than he was. (No need to have done that. What he did was dangerous enough, given that my three reporter friends who died in the Middle East died from accidents or illness, not enemy fire.)

    My point is, that scientifically, this is human behavior, and a reasonable explanation. We remember what we want to remember. We put the shards of memory of things that did happen into a narrative and, being selfish and subjective beings, are likely to make that narrative more pleasing. So now we can accept it – and make sport of Williams, as we all have, for the embarrassing screw up – or call for his head, which I think is unfair.

    Here is one more “story”: I remember, vividly, the sirens in Dahran and standing on the roof of the hotel with a stupid Iraqi-issue gas mask. I believe I witnessed explosions in the distance as the Iraqi Scuds (or falling Patriot missiles) hit the ground, Among friends I would swear it happened. And yet, looking back, I truthfully cannot tell you 1) whether I actually witnessed those explosions, or 2) saw them on CNN and fit the pieces, as the NSF study says, into a narrative of “memory.” We remember what we want to remember, and Williams has given a scientifically valid explanation, and apologized, for his behavior.

  4. Gary Delsohn says

    I like and respect Williams and would hate to see him fall over this. But he’s a journalist. We have all participated in the destruction of public careers over similar transgressions. How can he survive making something up, which is essentially what he’s done, and still be “one of America’s most trusted journalists,” as NBC has called him in the past? It doesn’t compute.

    I personally can overlook this. BFD, in the grand scheme of things. I accept and appreciate John’s story. We all know how flawed human memory and testimony are. This is different. He claimed he was shot at! And the public, the same public our profession works into a frenzy when someone slips up like this, is being asked to swallow something we have been calling out for years. He gets a pass because he’s a journalist? That’s why so many people are suspicious of the business in the first place.

    Call it another sad casualty of the crazy, hyper-critical world we live in. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t see how one standard can be applied here and another for everyone else the news business has crucified.

  5. Casey Tefertiller says

    I have written and studied on similar subjects, and I see major cause for concern with Williams.

    First, eight years is quite a short time to “conflate” memories. Old timers sometimes conflate thirty years or so later, but, for Williams, it was such a short period during his adult years. It is not like misremembering a childhood incident.

    Second, the big question becomes whether this is a single incident or a pattern. Reports on Friday indicate that much of what he reported about his activities during Hurricane Katrina were inaccurate and overblown. Interviews with the pilot from the helicopter indicate he had exaggerated that story from the outset, and it just kept growing. Even his apology was inaccurate.

    This becomes a big deal. Most who read this blog are journalists and writers, and we tend to look for logical, sensible answers to tough questions. We expect that, even after years of seeing exceptions. The question becomes whether Williams has tipped into what is called Social Psychopathy. This is a fairly recent psychological concept, and it is being studied in Europe and Canada. A portion of this is that there are people who will lie continuously with the belief that they can get away with anything. That is the way their brains work. Think John Edwards or Anthony Weiner. We think of psychopaths as just a tiny group of serial killers, but studies indicate perhaps one in a hundred is psychopathic, and most never commit a crime. They just lie and deceive without remorse, then assume the rest of us are too stupid to catch them.

    If Friday’s reports about Williams exaggerating many of his experiences turn out to be accurate, it becomes a much bigger question than confusing one experience. It is a pattern of deception for no real logical reason. He did not have to lie, his own experiences would have been sufficiently dramatic. If it does turn out to be a series of lies and exaggerations, one of the major identifiers for social psychopathy, it is a stain against journalism.

    I write this as I am working on a book dealing with social psychopathy, and the whole concept is frightening. Google shows some of the European articles on the subject, with one of the best entitled “No Strings on Me.”

  6. Tom Shales says

    Feeding frenzies are bad enough; beating frenzies are worse. The web has given us a new way to form a rock-throwing mob. It seems like nobody wants to be caught NOT giving Brian Williams a bash. The sanctimonious umbrage is getting pretty thick.

    I’m a lapsed Lutheran, but i do admire some of the precepts of Christianity — like forgiveness; what a concept. TV is the bullshit business & the web is a matrix of lies. I wonder if Williams’ errors are very shocking in context….

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