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Senior Correspondent

Brian Williams: Does Memory Lie?

Brian Williams: Does Memory Lie?


I was distracted from the real news by the attention given to Brian Williams for wittingly, or unwittingly, misleading the public when he said he was on a helicopter forced to land in 2003 after coming under fire in Iraq. Williams, who is under investigation by his network, was suspended for six months without pay from NBC News this week. Last week, Williams apologized. He has been a target of easy criticism ever since. Some military veterans and critics have called for his resignation.

“Should Mr. Williams be forced out of the anchor chair, it would be a major setback for NBC’s news division which is in a fierce competition for viewers,” The New York Times said. “NBC has averaged 9.3 million total viewers for its nightly broadcast compared with 8.7 million for ABC and 7.3 million for CBS, according to Nielsen." Williams reportedly has been tied to a five-year contract paying him $10 million a year.

In the Times’ weekly science section, Tara Parker-Pope wrote on Tuesday: “Mr. Williams has been branded a liar for embellishing his role in the event, with critics saying that as a newscaster he should be held to a higher standard. After apologizing, he temporarily stepped away from the nightly news. But memory experts see the issue differently, noting that the well-documented story, told differently many times by Mr. Williams, actually offers a compelling case study in how memories can change and shift dramatically over time.”

The lady friend has her own perspective on memory. “We recall, then embellish and forget we embellished,” she said. “It’s not unusual to remember things differently than friends and family. And lest we forget, we embellish to make our stories better and more interesting.”

My father, who was wounded in World War I, was awarded the Silver Star for valor. He told war stories to my brother and me when we were growing up. My recollection is that the stories changed some in the retelling.

“They got better?” asked the lady friend.

I couldn’t remember, I said.

On the other hand, Maureen Dowd reported in her column in the Times Sunday that NBC executives had been warned for a long time that Brian was “constantly inflating his biography. They were flummoxed over why the leading anchor felt that he needed Hemingway-esque flourishes to pull himself up, sometimes to the point where it was a joke in the news division.

“But the caustic media big shots who once roamed the land were gone," said Dowd, "and ‘there was no one around to pull his chain when he got too over-the-top,’ as one NBC News reporter put it."

This article originally appeared in the San Leandro Times.

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