I know Brian Williams slightly; have always liked his on-air presence; am glad he has participated in Atlantic events, like the one shown above; and am sorry for his current "our helicopter was hit" difficulties.
I don't mean to compound them, but I want to explain why I find the episode mystifying when it comes to human nature, and revealing about our current politics.
Mystifying: Memory is tricky. So is presentation-of-self—as David Graham explains in an item just now.
But with all such allowances, I still find it just about incomprehensible that someone: (a) whose professional background involves observing and reporting events, (b) who holds one of the handful of jobs in the world most reliant on trustworthiness, and (c) who knew he was talking to an audience of millions of people that would (d) include others with first-hand knowledge of the incident, would nonetheless (e) "misremember" what must have been one of the most dramatic and traumatic moments of his life, after (f) accurately reporting the event for the first few years after it took place, and (g) when the whole thing is only a dozen years in the past, not somewhere in the fog of distant childhood memory.
Again, narrative and recollection are strange. I think I clearly recall vivid or traumatic episodes in my life, starting with the time a pickup truck rammed the car in which I was riding with my mom as a pre-schooler in Jackson, Mississippi. I believe I'm sure that I was sitting in the front seat, in that era before seat belts or child safety-seats, and just missed hitting the windshield, being stopped by the padded dash. But maybe, this many years later, I'm fooling myself. There is no one else around who was there. Three or four times in the past 20 years, I've been in uncomfortable situations while flying an airplane. I think I could recount those episodes in second-by-second slo-mo detail. But I can't be absolutely sure.
What I find hard to imagine is telling a story I wasn't 100 percent sure of, in public, with the detail, drama, and certainty Williams used in his famous session with David Letterman less than two years ago. The relevant part starts at around time 3:40. It is worth watching the few minutes that follow, knowing what we do now. (This video has the bonus of Italian subtitles.)
I try to put myself in this situation, and I can't. Like every person I have misremembered things, and like many people I often exaggerate them. But in circumstances like this? Where you know that other witnesses could be listening in? (To spell it out: Everything that appears in our magazine is super-fact-checked, and any residual errors are despite our best efforts. Things I put on this web site are not checked the same way, but I know that anything I write is subject to someone writing in and reporting, "Hey, I also know about that episode, and it didn't happen the way you say.")
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Revealing. Of the various commentaries on this issue I particularly recommend today's note by Andrew Tyndall, at his Tyndall Report. He says, as I would, that the misremembering is strange but not of huge consequence in itself, especially after Williams's apology. Then he makes the political point. He mentions my Chickenhawk article, but I would agree with him even if he hadn't. I've added the emphasis:
This particular fib that Williams chose to tell—to identify himself all the more closely with the perils soldiers face in battle—derives from his underlying editorial judgment to offer instinctive support to the members of the uniformed armed forces ... And it is not only journalists that exhibit such "instinctive support," which is in truth a mere euphemism for "kneejerk adulation." Anyone who attends a major league baseball game observes the same unquestioning endorsement of the uniform and those who wear it.
Jim Fallows of The Atlantic recently observed that such "reverent" solidarity with our troops acts as a ring-fence that protects the entire military-industrial complex from the scrutiny it deserves. So the editorial importance of the fib Williams told is not only that it displays a reflexive desire toward identification with the military; it also represents his own newscast's self-disqualification as a dispassionate journalistic observer of the Pentagon's role in the domestic body politic and the nation's foreign policy.
I don't know what more Brian Williams can or will say about his own re-rendering of history. I do think, with Tyndall, that the particular way he re-presented himself says something about our times.
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