Brian Williams and ‘encouraged memory’

Brian Williams channels Buffalo Bill

During the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, a U.S. Army helicopter was forced to make an emergency landing after it was hit by two rockets and small-arms fire. An hour later, another Army helicopter, bearing the NBC television news anchor Brian Williams and his crew, landed at the same spot without incident.

Williams (right) with Terpak in Iraq: A reporter, or a celebrity?

In theory, here was a textbook example of TV news at its best: An accomplished news team arrives at the scene of a news event scant moments after it occurs, the better to provide a firsthand account of war from the front lines.

But, of course, Brian Williams didn’t really travel to Iraq as a reporter or observer. Like so many network news anchors since the Vietnam War, he was dispatched to the front as a celebrity seeking to enhance his journalistic credibility. From his network’s perspective, Williams’s image was more important than any story he purported to cover. So on March 26, 2003, NBC News released a report with this headline: “Target Iraq: Helicopter NBC’s Brian Williams Was Riding in Comes Under Fire.”

Rather than correct that fabrication, Williams repeated it several times over the next decade, so often that he may have come to believe it himself — a phenomenon I call “encouraged memory.” In 2013 on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” Williams described his ordeal of coming under fire in vivid and specific detail. Two weeks ago, NBC Nightly News filmed Williams taking a soldier to a New York Rangers game; there the public address announcer informed the crowd that “U.S. Army Command Sergeant Major Tim Terpak was responsible for the safety of Brian Williams and his NBC News team after their Chinook helicopter was hit and crippled by enemy fire.”

Hillary on the tarmac

It’s no easy thing to contradict an NBC News anchor in front of 18,000 fans who’ve come to watch a hockey game, not a journalistic debate.  So rather than spoil the party (not to mention his moment in the spotlight), Sergeant Major Terpak went along with the narrative and received a standing ovation. Only later that night, when NBC News posted a video of the story on Facebook, did one veteran — the flight engineer on the helicopter that was attacked — object.

“Sorry, dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft,” Lance Reynolds wrote on Facebook. “I do remember you walking up about an hour after we had landed to ask me what happened.”

Last week, Williams — blaming “the fog of memory over 12 years” as well as his constant viewing of the video showing him inspecting the impact area — confessed that his aircraft had not been attacked at all; he had simply “conflated” the victimized helicopter with his own.

Of course Brian Williams isn’t the first public figure to embellish the truth for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton described having dashed across the tarmac to dodge sniper fire during a visit to Bosnia in 1996, when she was first lady; Bosnia was then a dangerous place, to be sure, but video of that event showed Hillary calmly shaking hands with local dignitaries. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut told a veterans group in 2010 that he had served in Vietnam; in fact he had served stateside during the Vietnam War. The 20th-century Philadelphia tycoon Albert M. Greenfield (subject of my recent biography) sometimes claimed to have attended Philadelphia’s elite Central High School, although there’s no evidence that he did and considerable evidence that he didn’t. (He most likely attended Central Manual Training School, a far less selective institution.) As an 11-year-old in Kansas Territory in 1857, William F. Cody worked briefly as a local horseback courier for the freighting company that later launched the fabled Pony Express; on this slender basis, Buffalo Bill later claimed to have been a Pony Express rider himself. Indeed, Cody promoted himself as the personification of the Pony Express so effectively that some genuine Pony Express riders (perhaps like Sergeant Major Terpak above) swallowed his story in order to bask in Cody's reflected glow.

Close to battle, but not in it

With “encouraged memory” — a condition rarely noted by historians, as far as I can tell — the myths that prominent people circulate about themselves are actually reinforced by ordinary folks who know the truth but would rather attach themselves to a heroic narrative than challenge its specific details. (At the peak of his power, Albert Greenfield received letters from men claiming to have been his teachers and classmates at Central High.) In theory, high-powered journalists like Brian Williams are paid to seek the truth, not to embroider it; but in practice a mass-media colossus like NBC News operates with the same sort of impunity that inspired the old adage, “Never argue with people who buy ink by the barrel” — the notion that media moguls can create their own narratives without fear of contradiction, because nobody dares alienate them by calling them liars.

(The “ink by the barrel” maxim is itself an example of encouraged memory: It’s often falsely attributed to Mark Twain by journalists who perceive Twain as a convenient attention-getter.)

Consider the case of Colonel Robert McCormick, the heavy-handed publisher of the Chicago Tribune from 1920 to 1955. As an Army staff officer in France during World War I, McCormick was stationed a few miles from the Battle of Cantigny, the first American victory in that war. From his desk, he helped provide artillery support to troops in that battle. On that slender basis, McCormick subsequently implied that he had fought in the Battle of Cantigny himself. He changed the name of his Illinois estate from Red Oaks to Cantigny; he created a museum there to honor his First Division; and he gave speeches about the battle at monument dedications, which in turn were broadcast over the Tribune’s radio station. (To hear such a talk, click here.) Like Buffalo Bill Cody with the Pony Express, Colonel McCormick came to personify the fighting First Division even though he had never been in harm’s way at Cantigny or anywhere else.

The good news about the Brian Williams scandal is this: Unlike Colonel McCormick, Williams didn’t get away with his exercise in self-promotion. And it didn’t take a barrel of ink to bring him down. All it took was a single ordinary soldier posting a note on Facebook. People power, you might call it.

Our readers respond

Bruce Klauber

of Philadelphia, PA on February 12, 2015

I knew you'd have something to say about this matter. Sadly for Williams, he has become— in many quarters, anyway— a laughingstock.I doubt he will return to NBC. Nicely done, Dan.

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