Thursday Reads: Media Ignorance and Brian Williams’ Flashbulb Memory

Edvard Munch, Winter landscape at Hvitsten, 1918

Edvard Munch, Winter landscape at Hvitsten, 1918

Good Morning!!

I’m still snowed in. I’ve been shoveling for two days, but 40+ inches of snow in a week was just too much for me to handle alone. My sister-in-law was going to come down from New Hampshire today to help me dig out, but it’s snowing again, so she may have to wait until tomorrow. My cold is still hanging on too, so this post may be a little disjointed. I’m going to focus on a “shocking” story about newscaster Brian Williams that broke over the past couple of days. The illustrations I’m are paintings of winter scenes by Edvard Munch.

Yesterday, NBC News anchor Brian Williams was caught telling a false story about being shot down in a helicopter in Iraq. From Politico:

On Friday night’s broadcast, Williams cited “a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG. Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”

One crew member responded to the story on Facebook the following day, writing to Williams, “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft. I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what had happened.”

This week, crew members of 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook helicopter also told Stars and Stripes that Williams had not been in the shot-down helicopter but had arrived an hour later.

On Wednesday, Williams conceded that he was not onboard the shot-down helicopter, but he told Stars and Stripes he did not intentionally make the mistake.

“I would not have chosen to make this mistake,” Williams said. “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

Edvard Munch, Winter Night with Stars

Edvard Munch, Winter Night with Stars

From Stars and Stripes’ exclusive: NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest.

Williams made the claim about the incident while presenting NBC coverage of the tribute to the retired command sergeant major at the Rangers game Friday. Fans gave the soldier a standing ovation.

“The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG,” Williams said on the broadcast. “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.”

Williams and his camera crew were actually aboard a Chinook in a formation that was about an hour behind the three helicopters that came under fire, according to crew member interviews.

That Chinook took no fire and landed later beside the damaged helicopter due to an impending sandstorm from the Iraqi desert, according to Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Miller, who was the flight engineer on the aircraft that carried the journalists.

The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove: Brian Williams’ War Story Is FUBAR.

Unfortunately for Williams, this is not the first time he has made “this mistake” on network television. On the March, 26, 2013 episode of CBS’s Late Show With David Letterman, he told the host (at the 3-minute, 50-second mark): “Two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in.”

“No kidding!” Letterman exclaimed.

“RPG and AK-47,” Williams elaborated.

“What altitude were you hit at?” Letterman asked.

“We were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots…”

“What happens the minute everybody realizes you’ve been hit?” Letterman asked.

“We figure out how to land safely—and we did,” Williams answered. “We landed very quickly and hard…”

Stars and Stripes left open the possibility that Williams also misreported the incident initially on March 26, 2003, but it turns out that back then, at least, he never claimed to have been aboard the attacked chopper—during two different broadcasts on that date. Television news analyst Andrew Tyndall dipped into his videotape library and screened the Nightly News segment in which Williams said “he was in a convoy of helicopters, one of which got hit,” Tyndall told The Daily Beast.

NBC News, meanwhile, unearthed a March 26, 2003 Dateline segment in which Williams reported: “On the ground, we learn that the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown of the sky.”

Edvard Munch, Workers in the Snow

Edvard Munch, Workers in the Snow

Grove compared Williams’ conflation of events with a story Hillary Clinton told in 2008.

2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s false assertion that, as first lady in March 1996, she came under sniper fire during a trip to Tuzla, Bosnia. “I remember landing under sniper fire,” Clinton said during a speech. “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” CBS News video of Clinton’s arrival showed no such thing; instead she alighted on the tarmac and greeted a welcoming child who offered her a poem.

I would compare Williams’ flub to tales that then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan told about events he recalled that never happened. A famous example from memory expert Daniel Schacter:

In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot’s heroic response: “Never mind. We’ll ride it down together.” …this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film “A Wing and a Prayer.” Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source (Schacter 1996, 287).

An even more dramatic error by Reagan was his claim to have been present at the liberation of Auschwitz.

In November 1983, he told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir during a White House visit that while serving in the U. S. Army film corps, his unit had shot footage of the Nazi concentration camps as they were liberated. He repeated the same tale to Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal and other witnesses. Reagan had indeed served in the Army and worked on morale-boosting movies for the War Department. But he had done so without ever leaving Hollywood for the entire duration of the war.

Edvard Munch, Winter Night

Edvard Munch, Winter Night

And then there was the story about 9/11 that George W. Bush was repeatedly criticized for–he claimed on that morning he had seen the first plane hit the World Trade Center twin towers before he went into a school for a photo op of him reading to children. But that was impossible, because film of the first tower being hit was not aired until the next day later that day. Here’s Bush’s story quoted in a piece at e-Skeptic by memory expert Daniel Greenberg

I was in Florida. And my chief of staff, Andy Card — actually I was in a classroom talking about a reading program that works. And I was sitting outside the classroom waiting to go in, and I saw an airplane hit the tower — the TV was obviously on, and I use[d] to fly myself, and I said, “There’s one terrible pilot.” And I said, “It must have been a horrible accident.” But I was whisked off there — I didn’t have much time to think about it, and I was sitting in the classroom, and Andy Card, my chief who was sitting over here walked in and said, “A second plane has hit the tower. America’s under attack.”

Two weeks later Bush’s story had evolved:

Bush remembers senior adviser Karl Rove bringing him the news, saying it appeared to be an accident involving a small, twin-engine plane. In fact it was American Airlines Flight 11, a Boeing 767 out of Boston’s Logan International Airport. Based on what he was told, Bush assumed it was an accident. “This is pilot error,” the president recalled saying. “It’s unbelievable that somebody would do this.” Conferring with Andrew H. Card Jr., his White House chief of staff, Bush said, “The guy must have had a heart attack”… At 9:05 a.m., United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767, smashed into the South Tower of the trade center. Bush was seated on a stool in the classroom when Card whispered the news: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

Edvard Munch, Yellow Log

Edvard Munch, Yellow Log

The fact is that memory errors like these are quite common. Human memory is not perfect–we tend to get basic facts right, but when we retell a memory again and again or even go over it in our minds, specific details can change. There are a number of ways this can happen. We can forget the source of a memory, as Ronald Reagan did with the movie scene he believed to be real. It’s also comment to retroactively alter a memory, as Bush did with his 9/11 flashbulb memory. That is caused by “interference.” I doubt that Williams deliberately lied about his flashbulb memory from Iraq. Why would he put his reputation at risk in that way? Most likely, he conflated his memories with other things he learned later about the event that made a strong impression on him at the time.

You can read more about false flashbulb memories in this scholarly article by Greenberg (pdf): President Bush’s False ‘Flashbulb’ Memory of 9/11/01. A flashbulb memory is a very vivid recall of a dramatic event in which we have a sense “remembering” exactly where we were and who we were with when we experience or heard about the event.

Back to the Williams story.

At Slate, Ben Matthis Lilly provides a detailed timeline of the various stories Brian Williams has told about his 2003 experience over the years. The initial story Williams told in 2003 was also inaccurate, according to soldier witnesses, but Williams still claims his original report was true.

In the initial account (given on both the Nightly News and a Dateline episode on March 26, 2003), Williams clearly states that he was part of a group of helicopters that was fired upon while performing a mission:

We are one of four Chinook helicopters flying north this morning, third in line. As we head toward the drop point the Iraqi landscape looks quiet. We can see a convoy of American troop carriers and supply vehicles heading north.

This 2003 account, like Williams’ apology, implies the helicopters landed together after ground fire:

All four choppers dropped their load and landed immediately.

However, Stars and Stripes‘ piece says unequivocally that Williams’ helicopter was not part of the group that was fired upon—not third in line, and not part of the line at all.

…Crew members on the 159th Aviation Regiment’s Chinook that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire told Stars and Stripes that the NBC anchor wasnowhere near that aircraft or two other Chinooks flying in the formation that took fire. Williams arrived in the area about an hour later on another helicopter after the other three had made an emergency landing, the crew members said.

The soldiers quoted by Stars and Stripes say that they recall being upset at the time by the inaccuracies in this 2003 version of events.

Edvard Munch, New Snow on the Avenue

Edvard Munch, New Snow on the Avenue

But do these soldiers really recall being upset in 2003? We can’t know for sure, because they didn’t tell their stories in public at the time.

I’m sure Brian Williams will continue to be attacked for his false memory. He might even lose his job over it, because lazy reporters would never consider consulting a psychologist who actually conducts research on human memory errors and their causes. Here’s Eric Wemple’s evaluation of Williams’ apology at the Washington Post:

That’s a very nice admission, though “conflating” the experience of taking incoming fire with the experience of not taking incoming fire seems verily impossible.

It might seem “verily impossible” to Wemple, but it isn’t impossible at all. It’s not even surprising to anyone who knows anything about how human memory works. I have no way of knowing for sure whether Williams lied or not; but if I had to guess, I think it’s more likely that he inadvertently created a false memory.

What stories are you following today? Please post your thoughts on the Brian Williams story and/or your recommended links in the comment thread.

34 Comments on “Thursday Reads: Media Ignorance and Brian Williams’ Flashbulb Memory”

    • janicen says:

      I’ve been checking in throughout the day hoping you would write about this, bb. Thank you. This phenomenon happens to my husband occasionally. There are stories from my past that happened before I ever met him and he will retell them as if he were there. When I call him on it he’ll become so confused and say, “Really? Because I would swear I was there, I can visualize it.” I don’t know what causes it. I just accuse him of being a memory thief who steals my experiences. lol

      I never believed Hillary Clinton did it deliberately out of some sort of self-agrandizement. Why should she? It’s not like she needs to make herself more interesting. I also don’t believe that Bryan Williams did it deliberately. I’m not a big fan of his, but I hope this doesn’t end his career.

      • bostonboomer says:

        Thanks, Janicen. It happens to everyone. We just don’t notice it most of the time. I’m always fascinated to see what things my siblings recall about our growing up together. People tend to remember whatever is most important to them and forget other stuff. So if you compare notes, there’s always disagreement about what really happened.

        I’m sure Hillary didn’t intend to create a false memory. It just happens. I really can’t stand Brian Williams, but I’d hate to see this ruin his career.

        • Sweet Sue says:

          I think the real purpose of the Williams kerfuffle is to store up ammo against Hillary.
          As in “Williams had to resign. See, Hillary’s not fit for our highest office; she’s no better than Brian Williams.”
          That’s their long game.
          BTW, I don’t think that Williams will be forced to resign.

          • janicen says:

            I completely agree. All of this calling for his head is coming from right wing Hillary haters. They are half a step away from screaming “witch!” and erecting a stake.

        • Fannie says:

          You nailed it Janicen.

  1. NW Luna says:

    BB, thank you for the Munch paintings — I wasn’t familiar with much of his work. The winter night paintings are especially lovely.

  2. NW Luna says:

    Interesting about the “flashbulb” memories. It sounds as if hearing about a vivid incident can sometimes brand that into our own memory.

    I wonder if there’s a connection to “mirroring” — how when watching someone else move our own brains will sometimes activate in the same regions involved in those movements.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Maybe, but the main reason is that memories are thought to be stored in bits in multiple areas in the brain. For example emotions are stored separately from the visual and auditory information. Then they are reconstructed every time we recall them. So earlier and later memories can become associated with the targeted ones. You can also add to a memory from hearing other talk about the event or seeing pictures or video.

      Human memory is designed to help us function in the world but it isn’t designed to recall individual incidents in detail. If we have similar memories of different events, we are likely to combine them.

      For example, if you go to the same restaurant every week or month, you aren’t likely to recall one separate visit unless something really dramatic happens. Even then, you may not recall the exact date and you may still associate the event with other times you went to that restaurant. This happens because we form scripts about commonly experienced events, and then we use the scripts to understand what is happening in the present. The scripts cause you to expect certain things that happen and miss others. It’s really interesting.

      Despite all this, our memories are still really reliable in general, and it’s definitely possible to remember events accurately.

  3. NW Luna says:

    I hope this leads to freeing Tokitae (aka Lolita):

    A Puget Sound orca held for decades at Miami’s Seaquarium will gain the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act, a move expected to set the stage for a lawsuit from advocates seeking the whale’s release.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Wednesday the decision to list Lolita as part of the southern resident killer whales of Puget Sound, which already are considered endangered under the federal act.

    Whale activists, who petitioned for this status, have long campaigned for Lolita’s return to Puget Sound. They hope the listing will provide a stronger legal case to release Lolita than did a previous lawsuit that centered on alleged violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act.

    “This gives leverage under a much stronger law,” said Howard Garrett of the Whidbey Island based Orca Network, which hopes a San Juan Island cove will one day serve as the site for Lolita to re-enter the wild.

    NOAA Fisheries officials on Wednesday described their decision in narrow terms, which set no broader precedents. It does not address whether Lolita should be released from the Seaquarium.

  4. List of X says:

    Just yesterday, before I even heard of the Williams story, I read this article about how people tend to change their memories.

    • ANonOMouse says:

      Thanks for that X. I worked at an Aerospace & Defense company when the Challenger exploded. I remember I was at work because the company was turned on it’s head by the news. We made component parts for the internal fuel tank. As it turned out it was the external fuel tank that exploded, I think it was an O-ring failure. Still, things got very dicey in our P&IC & Engineering Depts during the investigation, as I’m sure it did for all of the sub-contractors. I’m also sure that my memories from that entire event are slightly exaggerated because it was such an emotional event.

      • bostonboomer says:

        That is a flashbulb memory that has been studied quite a bit. Researchers interviewed students at several different times to see how their memories changed. Interestingly, some people have accurate recall and others completely change their reports. Another characteristic of flashbulb memories is that they tend to “feel” very real, even if they aren’t accurate.

  5. List of X says:

    And, BB, if it doesn’t work out with your sister-in-law, I can help shovel you out. I don’t think you’re more than 20 minutes away anyway.

  6. ANonOMouse says:

    I know nothing about psychology, but I do know that it’s not unusual for people to have exaggerated, faulty or incomplete memories of traumatic events. I imagine that’s why eye witnesses to a crime often have very different recollections about what happened. I know that on 911 I felt so bombarded by the cascading events that I wasn’t sure whether what I watched via the internet was live or video. I began work that morning at 7AM CST. I hadn’t been working too long before a co-worker, who was listening to the radio said, “a plane just hit the World Trade Center”. We discussed for a few seconds how that was possible and then I went to MSNBC or CNN on-line, I don’t remember which, to see if I could get a better update than the radio. I think I saw the 2nd plane hit the WTC live, but I’m not sure. I’ve racked my brain over it and I simply cannot remember.

    • bostonboomer says:

      I may have been wrong. It looks like CNN may have had footage of the first tower crash after the fact on 9/11. They must have shown the second crash live.

      • ANonOMouse says:

        Thanks for that link BB. Reading that transcript makes me almost certain that what I saw that morning was the live event of the 2nd plane hitting the tower. The timing was right and I remember listening to eyewitnesses to the 1st tower strike before the second event and the description of the 2nd hit is exactly what I saw that morning.

        You know, not many people were using the internet at work in 2001. I was the only person in my office with internet access because I was the only person who was familiar with the internet and who needed it in my work. The only TV at work was in the main break room so most folks were listening to the events as they were unfolding via radio. Now we’re watching TV and surfing the web on our phones. It’s amazing the advances we’ve made in the past 10-15 years.

        • bostonboomer says:

          When it happened, my parents, my sister and I were in vacation in Rhode Island. We were out in the car when we heard. I didn’t see the news footage until we got back to our beach house. We heard about it on the car radio though.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Here’s an interesting article on flashbulb memories at the APA website.

  7. bostonboomer says:

    Measles Hits Illinois Daycare Center: 5 Infants Believed Infected.

  8. RalphB says:

    Austin TV station took a look at right wing nutjobs.

    KXAN: Hate groups in Central Texas

    Damn, I got new glasses and can see much netter at distance but can hardly see to read at all. Gotta get that fixed!

  9. bostonboomer says:

    Helicopter pilot says that “Brian Williams’ Chopper Did Take Fire In 2003.”

    Pilot Rich Krell told CNN’s Brian Stelter that Williams had some of the facts right, but did make some mistakes in telling the story….

    Krell appeared to back up at least some of what Williams has said during repeated tellings of the story over the past decade, even if the anchor did get some things wrong. The most striking thing that Krell said was that the military helicopter Williams was riding in did in fact come under enemy fire, though it was not from an RPG.

    “Some of things he’s said are not true. But some of the things they’re saying against him are not true either,” Krell told CNN.

    Their helicopter was second in a formation of three aircraft carrying bridge parts, according to Krell. The first helicopter was hit with the RPG attack, which Williams likely did not witness from his seat in the back of the chopper.

    All three of the helicopters were hit by small arms fire, however, according to Krell.