Oh, Brian Williams…

The brain seems to have a remarkable elasticity – remembering some details, forgetting others, and apparently rewriting whole events to suit itself without our knowledge. This isn’t the same as lying; lying is knowing the truth and deliberately covering it up with falsehood.

When I was 16, my grandfather died, less than a week after I had “bargained with God” to say one last goodbye. I was terrified that I would never see him alive again, and could not remember telling him I loved him – of course I had, but in a blind panic, on an airplane, having just had a very pleasant week’s visit with both my grandparents, I burst into tears, convinced that it was the last time I’d see him alive.

It wasn’t. And I remembered my bargaining, my pleading, my prayer, as the flight attendant went off in search of aspirin for my “migraine” – I sat at the edge of his bed in the hospital and told him I loved him. Thinking he’d be fine, my dad and I left the state, only to have to turn right back around, a few days later. My grandfather had died just before our return. I believed, with all my heart and soul, that I was never meant to see him after he died.

We don’t do “visitations” and “viewings,” normally, and we don’t do “open casket” in our family. But there was a visitation held in Ohio, before we took my grandfather to be buried in Arkansas. And someone had made a mistake; we walked in, and the casket was open.

For years – eight or nine years – I said that I had turned sharply to the right and gone into the family room at the funeral home, not going into the room where my grandfather was until after they had come to close the casket. I was telling a classmate about this, when I was in law school; she was a forensic pathologist, and I told her that the only dead body I had ever seen was that of my great grandmother when I was four. Oddly, this hadn’t bothered me at all, but I vividly remembered a woman brushing and braiding her long, gray hair.

My parents expressed some skepticism that that had ever happened, planting seeds of doubt in my mind, too. Had I “conflated” this with watching someone brush and braid her hair in the nursing home, some time before her death? Did she simply look that old to me? I do remember that when my mother got the news, over the phone, she said something like, “Death comes for us all,” and I hid behind a chair, terrified, thinking that Death was literally coming for us all.

I told my classmate how I had only seen the top of my grandfather’s head as we’d entered the funeral home, that day, and that on realizing the casket was open, I had headed into the room reserved for grieving family. And then I looked up at her, sharply, and said, “That was a bald-faced lie. That was complete and utter bullshit!” I was more astonished at that than she was. “I walked right up to the casket,” I said. “He was wearing glasses with black frames. He never wore them, except when he was working. Someone took them off, because he didn’t look like himself with them on. And my grandmother leaned into the casket to kiss him, but my dad pulled her away. He said something about there being chemicals from the embalming–eww.” I think he’d made it up, mostly to keep my grandmother from climbing into the casket. But still. Ew.

For a while, after that, I questioned every memory I had.

I’m fairly sure most are reasonably accurate. I’m more likely to forget things altogether than to make up things that didn’t happen (unless I’m writing fiction, doing it on purpose). I do worry that I threw out a lot of memories I had doubts about. My mother apparently forgot going to a Beatles concert in the 1960s, and I’m pretty sure there were no drugs or alcohol involved. But how often do two people remember the same distant event in very different ways? It helps, sometimes, if a third person was there and can weave together the frazzled ends of the two tales, but often as not, that just results in a third version. We each remember things that are significant to us, at the time; we’re likely to forget or rewrite the ones that don’t seem to fit with our beliefs or our reality. I wasn’t meant to see my grandfather’s dead body; therefore, my brain rewrote history so that I didn’t.

I’m still not sure about my great grandmother; I can describe the scene in detail, but how likely is it that a four year old child would be sitting in a back room of the funeral parlor while another woman brushed and braided the hair of a dead woman lying in a casket? In my family? Not bloody likely. But it’s still a vivid, visual memory.

I pride myself on honesty. But this is why the tagline on my blog used to be, “This blog is 99.3% truth, .7% blatant lies.” We all see the world through our own, unique lens. Add to that a vivid imagination and the ability to envision – vividly, visually – a world where unicorns frolic. It’s just possible that some of the details in the well of memory combine from time to time into a sort of shorthand that becomes a part of our worldview. Let’s all hope ours is one where we thank a soldier for saving us from a helicopter crash, or remember a moment of grace in which we were able to rescue puppies from a house fire.

Should Brian Williams be fired? Maybe. It’s not my call, though I might be inclined to suggest gently that he find another career. A good journalist takes notes, records audio and video, and verifies facts before speaking of them on the air or presenting them as “what really happened.” I hold journalists to a high standard, but others appear satisfied with the outright and deliberate lies told by so many of them, today, that I have to question the fairness of destroying the man’s career and credibility altogether when it’s quite plausible that he had a little accidental mash-up in the brain. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

HollyJahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; Innocents & Demons; and A New Leaf for Lyle. You can find her books on Amazon at http://amazon.com/author/hollyjahangiri. For more information on her children's books, please visit http://jahangiri.us/books.
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16 thoughts on “Oh, Brian Williams…”

  1. Good post! I wrote to NBC and basically said the same thing. I also added that his lapse of memory didn’t cost us any lives, didn’t add to the national debt, and isn’t going to affect the lives of the general public. I can’t say that I like or dislike Brian Williams. I like your last line about casting stones.

    1. Thank you.

      I rarely watch Brian Williams, so I’m in no position to like or dislike or even judge him. I just believe that if he said he “misremembered” even something that outrageous, he quite possibly did. I’m not prepared to call him a liar or humiliate him in public over it. I’d probably give him a warning and assign him an assistant to make sure there were good clear records of happenings from now on. IF there is ever evidence that he DELIBERATELY fabricated the story for better ratings, I’d feel differently about that.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Playing Catch with The UniverseMy Profile

  2. I have mixed feelings about this situation. I am a very big fan of Brian Williams so I feel sympathetic to him which seems to be my first and most prevalent response. That being said, like you I hold journalists to a very high standard and I think he should be held accountable for his mis-handling of this “story”. Not only that, but there is the bigger sin of misappropriation. He has stolen this memory from people who have experienced similar situations and although I do not think that it was his intention to glorify himself it has cheapened the overall experience for the survivors and non-survivors of any war. Every time a writer and/or journalist is called out and found guilty of plagiarism, misrepresentation or outright lying my hope is that this will be a life lesson for others in the field and they will be less likely to make the same choice (or mistake). Unfortunately that does not appear to be happening or possibly it’s just more readily or easily identified in this suspicious world in which we live.

    Now to your point about childhood memories I have seen firsthand how a memory can be elongated or bastardized for, not always but sometimes, nefarious purposes and as such I am a bit mistrustful of anyone’s childhood memories including my own. I don’t have a lot of memories from my childhood and the things I do remember are not always corroborated by the other people with which I had the experience. I used to automatically assume that my memories were faulty but after careful consideration and dissection I have come to the conclusion that my memories are not any less true than theirs.

    Just today I heard an interesting interview on NPR that relates to this somewhat. The discussion revolved around near death experiences. They were experimenting with the theory that our lives flash before our eyes or time slows down when we have a near death experience. Many people when interviewed have been able to provide extraordinary detail during the timeframe where their life was in danger. What scientists discovered was that our brains did not slow down instead what they determined is that during “commonplace events” our brains skip over what it would consider to be inconsequential moments thereby making the memories more fleeting and the details not as easily recollected. Conversely when we are experiencing danger or a frightening experience, even something like skydiving or a roller coaster, our brains are hardwired to recall every single detail. So extrapolating upon that theory is it possible that, in your example of your grandmother, your brain was reacting to a traumatic event in your life and during this event, the death of your grandmother, you experienced a secondary memory of a time when her hair was being brushed but your brain stored it as a first-hand memory instead? Something to think about I guess.

    On the flipside we all know that people’s memories are impacted by their life experiences and overall outlook. For example, it has been well documented that people who grew up in chaos will recall every day events as chaotic even when they weren’t because they’ve become hard wired to react a certain way. I have a very distinct memory of sitting in the back of our station wagon as we left my grandfather’s funeral and realizing that my father who is driving the car was crying. I could see his shoulders shaking and it was extremely impactful because my father rarely showed a “weak” emotion. It was a confusing and somewhat frightening experience for me. My two siblings who were in the backseat with me and my mother sitting in the front seat with him absolutely insist that this never happened. I think in my mother’s case it was because in her generation a man crying is a sign of weakness and in my brothers’ cases I think it was because my father even at the ages of seven and six had already instilled in them the “Boys don’t cry” mantra.

    Everyone lies and everyone’s memories are different just based upon their own perspectives. I want to believe that most people are fundamentally honest and I think for the most part I do, if only because I can’t imagine myself living in a world where I just don’t trust anyone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as cynical as the next girl probably more than most but I need to believe in the fundamental goodness of people. That being said I do still believe that Brian Williams for all of this ridiculousness is still the good person that I believed him to be a month ago. A flawed person but then who really isn’t?

    1. Hi, Mary! Thanks for the long and very thoughtful comment. I don’t think I had any “traumatic” memories before the age of four, so who knows? We honestly weren’t close; she’d lived in a nursing home for as long as I could remember, and the only real memories I have were of standing by her bed, singing “Jesus Loves Me” to her. I don’t have any particular feelings about any of that. (It was my great grandmother – not my grandmother. HER death would have been traumatic, had she not been in her mid-90s and lived a good life, well into my adulthood!) At any rate, I hope that it doesn’t make me any less credible or trustworthy. And unless someone proves Brian Williams did this intentionally, I can’t help but be inclined to give him benefit of the doubt. If a surgeon makes a mistake, does it negate their skill or all the lives they may have saved in the past? If they show up to work drunk, that’s a different matter, isn’t it? If they hurt a patient maliciously, it’s a very different matter. But we’re all human. I don’t know about you, but I make plenty of mistakes. I just have the luxury of doing it mostly in private, unless I’m writing about it here, on my blog. 🙂
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Oh, Brian Williams…My Profile

  3. I, too, hold journalist to a higher standard, but forgiving them of changing the truth or adding to the truth for a better story is not a higher standard.

    No, no one died, but is truth based on whether someone died or not good journalism or even good life? He knew he hadn’t told the truth. A previous recounting of his experience didn’t include the falsehood, but then the first version didn’t get the same audience reaction.

    Should Brian Williams be fired? Not my decision either. Would I ever trust anything he said again? No.

    1. But DID he do it for a better story? I certainly didn’t change details of my grandfather’s visitation for a “better story.” (Arguably, the truth was a much better story; it simply didn’t fit with the mental conviction that I wasn’t supposed to see him dead, and therefore, didn’t. It wasn’t any MORE traumatic, seeing him, than the simple fact that he had just died.) The brain works in odd ways. As I said to my dad, if it’s proved Williams did KNOW, and deliberately changed things for the sake of a better story, then he’s a liar. But I wouldn’t want to assume it, absent proof.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Playing Catch with The UniverseMy Profile

  4. I have always liked Brian Williams for his coolness and perceived calmness when delivering news as an anchor, but then again I do watch him from Hong Kong (on such rare and lucky occasions when I could) and as an Asian who didn’t know a thing or two about journalists in US. Why would he then falsify a story when he knows that a damn good number of people would rely on a large percentage of what he says as a journalist (it’s news after all; and news should be based on facts)? Not for me to deduce the real reason, but it now certainly will remove an astronomical size of trust element that I have on him. I just read that he is now temporarily stepping away from the NBC Nightly News. The question about his memories of his war coverage in Iraq, tagged now as “painfully apparent” is now news itself. Will this just be an interim ‘punishment-disguised-as-rest-or-time-off’? I sure do not know. Will it eventually lead to his dismissal? I don’t know either. He is good, actually a really very good newsman, but will that quality help him regain trust? It may well depend on the moral compass that will be used by his employer and by his audience.

    I really like reading your memories about your grandmother, Holly. And you are right, absolutely right, that our memories can be blurred by years and can be interpreted by our ability in using use our senses at the time we experience them (thus an event seen, felt, heard, etc by a 4-year-old could produce a memory different to a 14-year-old which could also be entirely incompatible with that of 24-year-old’s ). I guess the virtue of honesty should always be paramount. The question is : “will that be enough?” (and this especially and particularly relevant to journalism).

    Thanks for the sharing your view on this, Holly.
    Ron Lacson recently posted…Comment on Be A Freethinker this 2015… and in years to come. by Ron R. LacsonMy Profile

  5. Over the years, I’ve noticed that, when reporters report on something I know a good deal about, invariably they will get something in the story wrong, sometimes terribly wrong.

    From what I see, in the original 2003 piece, Williams slightly embellished what had actually happened to make it sound like it was a helicopter in his flight of copters that was hit when, in fact, it was one that had flown ahead about 2 hours earlier on a different mission. Over the years that evolved into it being the helicopter he was on that took the hit, as he related it on the Letterman show in 2013 and then again on Monday on his own show.

    I’ve been disillusioned with Williams for quite some time. However, for a time, he was the best bad choice of the three major network evening news shows. Since Diane Sawyer left ABC, we’ve switched back to ABC, which had been our preference until Sawyer took over when Charlie Gibson retired.
    Mike Goad recently posted…“Are you okay?”My Profile

    1. There’s wrong, there’s sloppy, and there’s unrepentently fabricated. I think this is possibly a different beast – along the lines of what we might call a “brain fart.” I don’t know that for a fact, and wouldn’t stake my reputation on defending or accusing Williams, at this point. But I can’t see what he’d even imagine to gain with intentionally embellishing those particular stories.

      I don’t trust the modern news media. I don’t believe most of them when their mouths are moving. But one thing that bothers me in all this is that if you point out errors – egregious, knowing, factual errors – in some news outlets’ reporting, fans are quick to jump all over YOU for pointing it out. They’ll defend their entertainer-reporter to the death. There’s no room for forgiveness here? The man’s credibility is shot? Maybe it’s because, secretly, they never really trusted anything that came out of the mouth of the first, they just liked what was said. Williams has a different level of trust and credibility, so the let-down, the disappointment, is worse? Or he’s just seen as “better,” and so is held to a higher – impossibly high, perhaps? – standard.

      After reading this post, would you trust me less? Or would you believe me when I tell you that I strive to be honest, insofar as human memory, with its odd quirks and occasional failings allows? Between the ages of 16 and 24, I would have sworn on a stack of holy Bibles I hadn’t seen more than the top of my grandfather’s head, in his casket, from the doorway. At 24 or 25, the actual memory – which my dad can attest to – returned, vividly. The wrong version was as real and as vivid to me as the correct version, and there was absolutely NO reason to lie about it. Unless you’re very aware that your brain has played this particular trick on you, I don’t think you can really understand or even fully sympathize with it – for a while, the implications terrified me. (They should have fascinated me – imagine the potential, there, for fiction!) I think journalists maybe ought to travel in packs of two or three, or be sure video is rolling, when they’re covering possibly traumatic events, to lower the risk of this sort of thing happening again.
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Oh, Brian Williams…My Profile

  6. This is the net result of a system wherein the news is a for-profit entity. Ratings matter – not much else. This is not the same as an O’Reilly, Hannity or Limbaugh pontificating – Williams is supposed to be a journalist. The other 3 are not. Once a journalist’s trust is compromised it’s a hard road back to credibility.
    shackman recently posted…SleepMy Profile

    1. The PROBLEM is that too many viewers can’t make the distinction and won’t admit that O’Reilly, Hannity, or Limbaugh are merely entertainers, pandering to their audience. Their audience too often does not recognize the difference. But you are so right – this is just another symptom of a for-profit, 24/7 news cycle. As my husband pointed out, even during the height of the 9/11 media frenzy, the real news often (usually) doesn’t change that much, that fast. After that first morning, there wasn’t much real “news” that couldn’t be gleaned in 5-10 minutes at the top of the hour, twice a day. And yet I watched the TV as if it were a venomous snake – it would bite and the world might end if I took an eye off of it. I slept with the TV on. That’s just not healthy.

      I like the line from The Hunger Games: “What if no one watched?”
      HollyJahangiri recently posted…Oh, Brian Williams…My Profile

  7. Well…

    Just to get it out of the way, no, Williams should not be fired. The way I see it, it’s like there being a 24 car pile up and you’re car #27; no, you didn’t suffer any damage but you were probably stuck behind all of that for hours because there was nowhere for you to go. That’s what the story about the helicopter sounds like after he gave an explanation of it.

    As for memory… well, that one’s trickier. Not sure if you saw the story about my great grandmother on my business blog but some of it had been recounted to me by my mother and I’d forgotten a lot of it until she reminded me of it. Probably because it was a horrible time in my life and probably because it was, at least at the time, a very embarrassing tale.
    Mitch Mitchell recently posted…Blogging DedicationMy Profile

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