Brian Williams: Cats, Dogs, Mass Hysteria!

Brian WilliamsThe more this Brian Williams story plays out, the more ridiculous it seems. Unless NBC knows something the rest of us don’t, a six-month suspension seems pretty draconian. (But not draconian enough for those demanding he be fired.)

I don’t really have a dog in this fight. I don’t watch the NBC Nightly News (or any of the network newscasts for that matter), though I do enjoy his occasional comedy turns on 30 Rock and other shows.

But since this controversy touches on storytelling, memory, communication and the media, I have a few things to say about what his critics may be overlooking, deliberately or otherwise.

Facts Are Hard to Nail Down

Every story I read about the incident has a different set of facts — because it’s reported from a different set of sources. For instance, multiple reports say Williams was not in the helicopter following the one that was hit — he just showed up an hour later.

Other stories say that after the first helicopter was hit, it landed (or crash landed, depending on the source) while Williams’ helicopter proceeded to drop off its cargo before returning to the scene later. So while Williams may have appeared to “just show up,” he reportedly was indeed in the helicopter behind the one that was hit.

Still other accounts have said Williams’ helicopter was hit by small arms fire, which is definitely different from an RPG, but is probably a pretty scary thing.

I don’t know exactly what happened. The point is, few people do. Everyone else is just speculating based on fragments of information.

Our Memories Are a Lie

Memories don’t just fade. They are continuously processed, reprocessed and overwritten. Every time we tell a story based on a past experience, it gets shaped, shaved and scrambled.

In essence, our brains lie to us. They are storytelling machines, constantly taking in the chaotic inputs the world feeds us and putting them into a framework that makes sense. A story, in other words.

Study after study confirms that memories are unreliable:

All memory … is colored with bits of life experiences. When people recall, they are reconstructing … It doesn’t mean it’s totally false. It means that they’re telling a story about themselves and they’re integrating things they really do remember in detail, with things that are generally true.

I don’t know if this happened in Williams’ case, but to dismiss it out of hand is short-sighted.

Now onto the subject of truth …

There’s The Truth and “The Truth”

There are “Big T”  Truths and “little t” truths. The little truths are the small details that don’t have a big impact on the larger truth.

Williams’ critics say whether your helicopter was shot at is a pretty big truth. I’d say it kind of pales amid the vast landscape of that long, horrible war.

If we’re going to start dissecting the truths of the Iraq War, I have a long list of questions, and whether or not Brian Williams exaggerated a story about a tense helicopter trip that day doesn’t even make the top 500.

If You’ve Never Been Shot At, Shut Up

I’ve heard lots of armchair generals saying they’d definitely remember whether their helicopter was hit by ground fire or not. But they don’t call it the fog of war for nothing. Bottom line: if you weren’t there, you don’t know.

Uncle Walter is Long Gone

This isn’t the 1950s or 60s, when we trusted in, relied upon and almost deified the network news anchor.

People today get their news from lots of sources: from the broadcast networks and from cable, from news shows and from Comedy Central, from blogs and from social media. We take it in, we process it, filter it, check it against what we know and what our friends and others think, and we draw our conclusions and form our opinions.

I don’t know anybody who is relying on Brian Williams every night as some all-knowing source of news and wisdom. Most of us regard him (and other newscasters) as human, utterly fallible, and with built-in biases. To say nothing of the biases of the giant corporations that own the networks.

And if there are people still beholden to the news anchors for their news, they’re part of an ever-shrinking demographic of mostly older viewers (54-years-old, to be exact).

So what I’m saying is, the stakes just aren’t as high as they might have been a generation or two ago. Our expectations, for better or worse, are lower. Or different.

Did He Lie? And Does it Matter?

Did Brian Williams exaggerate for purposes of self-aggrandizement or did he “conflate” events unintentionally? I don’t know.

Does it matter? I don’t know about that either. If he did it deliberately, he certainly wouldn’t be the first public figure to exaggerate his accomplishments or glorify his life. But as lies go, it’s certainly not on the scale of, say, lying about whether you’re a combat veteran or not. That one really goes directly to character.

This latest report claims Williams’ exaggerations were an open secret around NBC. If true, it indicates some hypocrisy on the network’s part. They were certainly fine with his behavior while he was being celebrated for his various cameos on late night talk shows and sitcoms.

That article, it should be noted, appeared in the Washington Post’s style section, which brings us to the final issue.

The Disappearing Line Between News And Entertainment

But he’s a news person, they argue. He should be held to a higher standard, right? I suppose so, if you take everything news people tell you at face value. And if you ignore the fact that the news business these days is very much the entertainment business.

NBC undoubtedly benefited from Williams’ many forays into the entertainment side of things, so they are as responsible as anyone for blurring that line. Send your news guy out to entertain people and he’s going to tell stories.

In the end, I don’t think the tale of one reporter’s helicopter amounts to a hill of beans in this world.

So give him a slap on the wrist, allow the frenzy to cool down, and move on. After all, as Andrew Shepherd, the best fake president the United States has ever had, once said, “We’ve got serious problems to solve.”


{This post is an expansion of comments I made to a blog post at Bull Dog Reporter.}