The Brian Williams rocket fire brouhaha has been disturbing to me, though not for the expected reasons. Oh, I’m pretty unhappy that he lied or got mixed up or whatever, but there is more to the situation that bothers me.
First of all, I have always really, really liked Williams. I don’t “know” him from his show, as I never watch network news. Where I have always seen him is on the Daily Show, where he has impressed me as being smart, funny, quick—and a great guest for Jon Stewart. So my first instinct on hearing about his false story was, “Oh, no! There must be a mistake.” That led me to my first problem. What if he had been a news anchor or commentator that I despise? Hmmmm. I confess that everything would be different. I would be enjoying the jokes at his expense and probably feeling a bit thrilled at the skewering going on. Not good.
Then I have been bothered by the follow-up "news." Did he lie about being robbed at a Christmas tree stand when he was young? Was he telling the truth when he reported on Hurricane Katrina? Did he once rescue one puppy, two puppies, or no puppies at all? People are looking everywhere for evidence that he is a liar, and that reminds me of something I'll never forget from my high school years. There was an ax murder in my hometown, and a high school boy I knew—the boyfriend of a friend of mine—was a suspect. Once it was suggested that he was the perpetrator, people came out of the woodwork to find evidence of his guilt, and they found a lot of it. But they were wrong. It turns out there were reasonable explanations for all the "evidence," and he didn't do it. Two escapees from a mental institution were the guilty parties.
Then I am reminded, because of a couple of books I’ve been reading, of the incredible unreliability of our memories. Countless studies have showed that eyewitness accounts are quite often wrong and that memories change over the years or can even be planted by others. We don’t usually notice our memory mistakes because we aren’t usually in a position of having any way to accurately go back to the past and measure them. According to a chapter called “Remembering and Forgetting” in the book Subliminal—Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonard Mlodinow, psychologist Dan Simons evidently decided to check out the accuracy of his memory by investigating something that was crystal clear in his mind—where he was and what he did on September 11, 2001, when hearing news of the attack on the World Trade Center. He clearly remembered that he had been in his lab at Harvard with three graduate students, all of whom happened to be named Steve. He remembered that he and the three Steves had spent the day together watching coverage of the news. However, when he checked on this ten years later, he found out his memory was wrong. Only one of the graduate students named Steve was with him that day; another was giving a talk somewhere else, and another was out of town. Simons theorized that his memory was based on what usually was the case. The three students named Steve generally were in the lab with him, but in this case, despite his clear memory, they weren’t there at all. Not good.
I'm also reminded of how my husband often tells a certain story but has an important detail completely wrong. It drives me crazy. However, I’ve given up saying anything about it. I just quietly feel annoyed. He is completely convinced that what he is remembering is the way it happened. He’s wrong, of course, but his memory is clear.
And then I realize, if memories are so unreliable, is it remotely possible that it is my memory that is the incorrect one? That is a troubling thought. (What is worse is that, despite my certainty about the “rightness” of my version, I can’t even recall right now what his frequently told story is about. I just remember that he has it wrong. Not good.)
I don’t know what will become of Lyin’ Brian, as he has now been dubbed, but the whole thing makes me kind of sad—sad that this is happening to someone I liked so much, sad that he is responsible—on purpose or not—for the scandal, and sad that so few hold out even the possibility that maybe, just maybe, like most of us, he tells stories that get better as the years go by, not because of evil intent but because of the desire to tell a good story.