Longtime NBC news anchor Brian Williams announced earlier this week that he’d be leaving NBC News at the end of 2021. Williams has been the host of an MSNBC show, “The 11th Hour,” since September of 2015 after he was removed from his position as anchor of the “NBC Nightly News.”
You probably remember the scandal that caused Williams to be removed from Nightly News. On several platforms and for several years, he told a story that he had been in a helicopter that was hit with an RPG missile and was forced to land, which wasn’t true.
When Williams first reported the story in March of 2003 on Nightly News as a war correspondent, he correctly identified that he was not in the helicopter. He clearly states “we learned the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky.”
But Williams’ recounting of the tale morphed over time.
In an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman in 2013, Williams said “two of our four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in. RPG and AK-47.” And in January 2015, Williams offered a new interpretation on the Nightly News “the helicopter we were flying in was forced down after being hit by an RPG.”
After these appearances, the truth began to seep out from other veterans that Brian Williams’ helicopter was not hit by an RPG.
In February 2015, Williams appeared on-air to retract the story.
“I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago,” Williams said. He continues, “I want to apologize. I said I was in an aircraft that was hit by RPG fire, I was instead in a following aircraft.”
The reaction from pundits at the time was strong and came from all sides, everyone from Brian Stelter to Rosie O’Donnell weighed in on the issue, with O’Donnell saying on The View, “I think you would know if you were in a helicopter that was actually hit by a missile. So I don’t think he didn’t remember that, I think he fabricated that.”
What Brian Williams did was clearly wrong. The cardinal sin for any journalist at any level is to be caught making up a story, it’s something hammered into your head from the first day of journalism school.
The question of intention, though, is a difficult one to answer.
Many — at the time and probably still — believed that Williams was making up the story to make himself seem like a bigger character in the story. I, at the time, agreed with this interpretation of the story. Even to a 13-year-old kid, it seemed like the classic story of a celebrity flying too close to the sun.
But this all changed when I listened to an episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Revisionist History” titled “Free Brian Williams.” The episode explores the scandal in-depth but also offers an interesting explanation for William’s on-air inaccuracies.
The podcast introduces the idea of “flashbulb memories,” a psychological concept which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines as, “a vivid, enduring memory associated with a personally significant and emotional event.” These flashbulb moments occur on wide scales or a personal level. Examples that Gladwell cites are national tragedies like 9/11. Due to the visceral or emotional nature of these events, memories can become corrupted or unreliable, especially when someone recounts the memory repeatedly.
Gladwell suggests that what Williams was experiencing between when the event occurred in 2003 and when he was removed from the Nightly News in 2015, was the effects of a flashbulb memory.
According to Gladwell, Williams’ memory of the incident faltered, he didn’t embellish the story to make himself seem cooler. Which makes good sense. If he intended to make himself seem more heroic, why did he start doing so 10 years after he initially reported the story?
Following his removal from the Nightly News, William’s “punishment” was to move to MSNBC and host a cable news show. But his legacy and his name were undoubtedly tarnished by the incident.
And now, six years later Williams is leaving NBC News. If the blowback from this incident was not as severe, he might’ve still been on the Nightly News.
It’s hard to understand why when moments like this happen in the media — or society in general — we can’t chalk it up to being a simple mistake. It must be a widespread and public flogging for the crime of not being perfect, something that no person is able to ask of themselves but something they must demand from everyone else.
Brian Williams made a mistake. He should have double-checked the footage from 2003 before retelling the story on Letterman and on his show. It doesn’t mean he was a bad person for doing so, it just means he was a normal one.
I think it’s time we forgave Brian Williams.