Brian Williams and the Pressures of War Correspondents

There's no excuse for the former NBC anchor's lies. But there are reasons.


Reflecting on the saga of Brian Williams’ decade-plus of lies about getting shot at while reporting in Iraq, WaPo’s Charles Lane observes,

[N]ever trust an “I got shot at” tale that doesn’t dwell on how really, really scared the tale-teller felt at the time. Even if the incident in question is due to bad luck (as seems to have been the case for Williams), as opposed to bad decision-making, getting shot at, or the equivalent, can be so scary it’s humiliating.


It’s all legitimate subject matter for gallows humor over beers back at the hotel, but definitely nothing to write home about, much less banter about with Letterman.

Alas, the notion that nearly getting killed confers some sort of extra reportorial credibility is a deeply ingrained cultural norm, among both producers and consumers of news. I don’t know who’s to blame for this; maybe it all goes back to Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and the civil war in Spain.

Certainly, Williams was encouraged to put himself at the center of a March 26, 2003, “Dateline NBC” report about his trip aboard a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter ferrying construction material to troops in southern Iraq.

“My colleague Brian Williams is back in Kuwait City tonight after a close call in the skies over Iraq,” then-NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw intoned, introducing Williams’s report. “Brian, tell us about what you got yourself into.” Not: Tell us what happened to the U.S. troops you are covering.

Blame Williams for whatever combination of insecurity, dishonesty and narcissism led him to embellish — misbehavior for which he is appropriately being held accountable now.

The mitigating factor is that he was, to some extent, just meeting the demand, both in NBC’s executive suite and in its audience, for infotainment, starring our intrepid man on the ground.

Stanford psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys offers  some additional insights:

The Williams scandal is an instance of a more general challenge of war journalism in that by its nature, it offers less opportunity for editors to monitor and fact-check journalists’ work. A lot of the reporting relies on one person’s subjectivity, and if that person is dishonest, they can distort the story far more than they could ever get away with in a different setting. But in my observation, self-promoting embellishment is not the main found of subjectivity that can color how wars are covered by journalists.

I got to know a number of war correspondents through my Iraq work, and some of them I would rank among the most impressive people I have ever met. But I was also struck how many of them were depressed, were fleeing disastrous marital/family situations, drank too much and/or were terminal adrenaline junkies. Some had full-blown PTSD, a larger group had less serious but still significant problems of that sort (perhaps masking it as world-weary cynicism/bitterness).

Like our soldiers, a number of them had mental health problems when they came back. I tried to help those who asked for support as best as could, and at least some of them have pulled things together and are doing well stateside. But some continue to struggle, permanently altered for the worse by the events to which they were exposed in war zones.

These experiences changed the way I consume war-related news coverage. As I read, I weigh in my mind that the person writing it may well have some emotional scars that lead them to report events in a different way, most commonly tilted toward a bleaker take than objective events warrant. I don’t say this in criticism because I appreciate that, unlike Williams, they have an excuse when their personal psychology begins to dominate their reporting. But it does lead me to be unusually cautious in taking their reports at face value.

It’s a hell of a brew: chasing the ghosts of legendary war correspondents; a personal sense of inadequacy in comparison to both said legends and the soldiers and marines on whom one is both reporting and dependent for one’s safety; pressure from one’s bosses for reporting something sufficiently attention-grabbing as to justify the enormous expense of the trip; a limited of ability by said bosses to verify the veracity of your work; and mental health issues brought on by those stresses and the real threat of getting killed, embarrassed, or both.

In terms of Williams himself, I don’t see how he can ever return to the anchor chair. His reputation as a trusted reporter is forever tarnished. Still, I have to sympathize. Slate culture critic John Swansburg gets to the heart of it in a piece about William’s frequent forays into the late-night comedy circuit:

I think in Williams’ appearances on [Jon] Stewart[‘s Daily Show] you see pressures that might have played a part. Williams recognized early on a shift in the media landscape and, to his credit, didn’t look down his nose at it. He praised the role Stewart played in keeping the real journalists honest. “They hold people to account, for errors and sloppiness,” he told NPR in 2010. “It helps us that he’s out there.” But he also saw that the anchor chair he was inheriting was diminished, in no small part due to the incursions of Stewart and later Colbert, whose comedy became a news source for a younger, more skeptical, not-home-at-6:30pm generation. In the 2004 Daily Show interview, Williams talks a bit wistfully about his belated ascension to the anchor chair, after a decade as Brokaw’s heir apparent. “I feel cheated,” he tells Stewart, when asked about Dan Rather, who had just announced his resignation after flaws in his report on George W. Bush’s National Guard service had been exposed. “I wanted to go head-to-head with those guys.”

In recent days, some commenters have dismissed Williams’s comic moonlighting as the work of a guy who couldn’t stand not to have a camera trained on him, or of a newsman who actually just wanted to be an entertainer. A more charitable view would be that he was an anchor trying to remain relevant in a news environment that, thanks in part to Stewart, was turning him into a dinosaur in a bespoke suit. That’s not to forgive his journalistic sins—far from it. It’s to appreciate the degree to which Stewart, however unwittingly, hastened the demise of the man he shares the media pages with today.

While I grew up watching Walter Cronkite every night and kept at it as we switched over the Peter Jennings and company when Rather took over at CBS, it’s been a long time since I’ve been a regular consumer of the nightly newscasts. Indeed, aside from recording and watching the roundtable segments on Brit Hume’s telecasts, I had made that shift by the time Williams took over. Those younger than me never got into the habit in the first place and, yes, the Stewarts and Colberts had essentially taken over the role anchors had once played.

So, in addition to all the pressures that Lane and Humphreys lay out, Williams was also dealing with the fact that he’d achieved his life-long dream at precisely the moment when the anchor desk was becoming an irrelevancy. In trying to adjust to the new realities, he used his not inconsiderable talents as a humorist and storyteller to  make himself relevant. In the end, though, he succeeded only in becoming a punch line.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    I believe the pressure that led Brian Williams to lie or embellish his role in “news” stories derives in great part from the current “business model” of network news. Today, more than ever, the personality or brand of the anchor is all important. Is the anchor attractive, strong, charismatic and trustworthy? All of that may not be enough, and so we see anchors insinuating themselves into the story itself – at Katrina, embedded with troops in the Middle East, and so on and so forth.

    In a bygone era I do not believe that Chet Huntley, David Brinkley or Walter Cronkhite felt an overwhelming need to be a part of the story. One could say that there was no need because the networks monopolized national news coverage, and there was less bottomline pressure to pull these kind of stunts. Perhaps it started with Dan Rather, a man who styled himself as an “action” correspondent and anchor? I’m not sure, but what we have now is a very trivialized national network news environment.

    Me personally? Except for presidential election coverage I have not watched much network news in years – not because of any ideological disagreement, but because of timing and convenience. I commute 60 miles to the city everyday and I’m often home by 7:00 pm, by the time I’m home network news is done. It’s been clear for years that network news is a somewhat degraded infotainment product, so I haven’t missed much.

  2. Another thing to note: Brian Williams may not even have been lying, in the sense of telling a story he knew to be untrue. A lot of recent research has shown that human memory is a lot more fluid than most people like to believe:

    The Memory Doctor

    It’s quite possible that in the 11 years since the incident in question happened that his memory has glued together bits of things that actually happened to him, things he saw happen to other people while in Iraq, and stuff he heard about interviewing Iraq soldiers so that he actually does have a memory of being in a helicopter that got hit by an RPG.

  3. Pinky says:

    Since this is largely a political site: how does this affect Mrs. Clinton?

    The Republicans would love to paint her as (a) a liar, and (b) as someone without real accomplishments. The Brian Williams story is very similar to her story about being under sniper fire as she landed in Bosnia. As I noted elsewhere, Williams jokes are really easy. If he becomes synonymous with stolen valor boasts, it becomes very easy for her opponents to bring up the story. Political campaigns are about impressions, and the impression Williams gives right now is of a New York-based liberal elite who never really did anything and coasted his way to the top, making up stories as he went. That’s so on-message for the Republicans it’s scary.

  4. C. Clavin says:

    Journalism is characterized by truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness.
    I know those words have become a joke in these days of Fox News….but the fact is that Fox News doesn’t practice Journalism.
    Bottom line…Williams lied…and he betrayed a proud profession in the process.
    I’m tired of hearing excuses for his behavior.
    It’s not like Rand Paul, a politician who everyone expects to lie…about his education, the science of vaccines, or the history of economics…and that was just one weeks worth!!!
    Williams is a Journalist. Or was. Now he is a punchline. He deserves what he gets.

  5. C. Clavin says:

    Clinton is a Politician.
    Williams purported to be a Journalist.
    They are two different things.
    Lying is never justified…but with Politicians it’s expected.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    @Pinky: Brian Williams never seemed to be especially liberal to me. But then again, conservatives see liberalism everywhere, so maybe I didn’t get the memo? Williams likes NASCAR, so I think there’s a good chance he’s a conservative.

  7. Pinky says:

    @al-Ameda: I’m talking about impressions here, which are the bread and butter of campaigning. He’s pretty, he lives in New York, he’s a reporter, and his daughter is on Girls. That’s a liberal impression.

  8. Guarneri says:

    The business model. Yep. That’s it.

    Say, ask the Attorney General if he would quack like a duck, would ya? It’s good for business.

  9. al-Ameda says:


    I’m talking about impressions here, which are the bread and butter of campaigning. He’s pretty, he lives in New York, he’s a reporter, and his daughter is on Girls. That’s a liberal impression.

    Three comments:
    (1) NBC headquarters is in New York, and the evening news is broadcast from New York, so I would not expect Mr. Williams to live in Tulsa, Dallas, or Columbia SC.
    (2) All reporters are liberal? Okey doke.
    (3) The fact that his daughter is an actress, on “Girls,” which is about young post college aged hipster women in Brooklyn – I suppose that does contribute to Williams’ perceived liberalism.

  10. CSK says:

    I’ve worked with a number of male journalists, and my sense is that some of them–not all, certainly–harbor an uneasy conviction that what they’re doing (observing and recording events) isn’t really “manly,” so they embellish their experience to make it appear they’re actual participants in combat, rescue missions, crime-fighting, etc.

  11. al-Ameda says:


    The business model. Yep. That’s it.
    Say, ask the Attorney General if he would quack like a duck, would ya? It’s good for business.

    I’m sorry for your loss.

  12. C. Clavin says:

    I’m glad you think I’m pretty.

  13. C. Clavin says:


    But then again, conservatives see liberalism everywhere

    Republicans have veered so far off to the extreme right that even right-of-center moderates seem like crazy radical liberals to them.
    Everything is relative.
    But as long as Pinky thinks all of us liberals are pretty, I’m good.

  14. @C. Clavin:

    Pretty much all the conservatives I know call me a left wing progressive and all the liberals I know call me a right wing reactionary. I’ve pretty much come to conclude that it’s more about tribal identity than how reasonable or unreasonable anyone’s particular positions are.

    And I’m pretty alienated from both tribes.

  15. Jack says:

    @Pinky: “What difference – at this point, what difference does it make?”–Hillary Clinton

  16. CB says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”


  17. C. Clavin says:

    “You know, there are so many things about Saturday Night Live that people don’t know,” Seinfeld said. “Like, for example, I just found out that one of the original cast members in 1975 was Brian Williams. I don’t know if that’s true, but I never heard that. It doesn’t sound true.”

  18. Jack says:

    @C. Clavin: I heard that Brian Williams also destroyed the One Ring by tossing it into Mordor. I never read Tolkien, but I would have to presume they must have gotten the name wrong in the movie.

  19. James Pearce says:

    Brian Williams always struck me as a guy who can be trusted to put a grandiose spin on things. In fact, I think that’s why he got the job at NBC News in the first place. Let’s just be honest here: We don’t want straight newsmen in the “just the facts” mold.

  20. Hal_10000 says:

    [N]ever trust an “I got shot at” tale that doesn’t dwell on how really, really scared the tale-teller felt at the time.

    On a side note, this was one of the reasons I was dubious of that dude on 60 minutes who claimed to be present at the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi. He had this story about how he clobbered a Jihadi with his weapon and all kinds of alarm bells went off in my head. Reading this, I realize what my intuition was telling me: that being casual about that kind of danger is the mark of a liar and a braggart. I contrast this against my uncle, who hit the beach at Omaha, telling me how little he could remember and how scared he was.

  21. John425 says:

    @C. Clavin: Fox News treats news as news but also has a lot of pundit opinion shows. Gerbils like you don’t know the difference.

  22. John425 says:

    @C. Clavin: Not so, Cliffie. The liberals have moved so far left that the “center” is now left of Mao and Josef.

  23. C. Clavin says:

    Well that at least explains why all of your opinions are so manifestly un-tethered from reality.
    Study after study prove that Fox mis-informs it’s viewers…and in fact Fox viewers are even less informed than those who say they don’t watch any news at all.
    Your loyal viewership only proves the point……it just makes perfect sense.

    In any case…the other day you accused me of bestiality. Today I’m a gerbil.
    You have serious issues, don’t you?
    Maybe you should spend your time seeking professional help, rather than trolling the intertubes.

  24. James Pearce says:

    @Jack: @Pinky: Re: Hillary Clinton.

    There were people who found ways to swing every conversation that occurred between 2000 and 2008 back to the evils of George W. Bush and his cabal. Is that how you plan to spend 2016-20XX? Having one long conversation about how awful Hillary is?

  25. James Pearce says:


    “The liberals have moved so far left that the “center” is now left of Mao and Josef.”

    Or in other words: “I don’t have anything useful to add or anything intelligent to say, so……..BLLLLLAGGHHH!”

    Word vomit all over your shoes. Giggle, giggle.

  26. dmichael says:

    The Brian Williams problem is not about Brian Williams but about the major media itself. We should focus on the root problem, not the fall of some prima donna news anchor. For a trenchant take, see:

  27. Jack says:

    @James Pearce: “Mission Accomplished” is used by the left still today to lambaste G.W. Are you suggesting that we cannot use “If you like you doctor you can keep your doctor. Period.” and “What difference – at this point, what difference does it make?” among others, when the issue of Obama and Hillary’s honesty arise during political debate?

  28. Tyrell says:

    @C. Clavin: The days of the network evening news, news channels, and news talk shows are following newspapers into the museum wing next to the dinosaurs and mummies. I grew up on Conkrite and Brinkley. Now most of the news people try to entertain. The local news people sit there, laugh, giggle, tease, and engage in happy talk; “in depth” reporting is stuff like how to keep your kids from driving you crazy when there is a snow day or how to drive in snow (2 inches of snow is a big deal around here). I am trying to avoid the “breaking news” networks. I get most of the news from local am radio talk sessions, and the group that shows up on Saturday mornings at the local fast food place where they discuss everything from basketball to Russia (“those dern Russians are at it again”).

  29. Pinky says:

    @James Pearce:

    Is that how you plan to spend 2016-20XX?

    I’m not planning to, and I didn’t advocate doing that. I’d like to see political campaigns operate very differently from they way they do. I’m saying, analytically, that this opens up an opportunity for the Republicans, and I thought it’d be interesting to discuss it.

  30. Rafer Janders says:


    He’s pretty, he lives in New York, he’s a reporter, and his daughter is on Girls. That’s a liberal impression.

    Apart from the “Girls” thing, by that standard most of the Fox News “reporters” give off a liberal impression….

  31. @CB:

    It should be noted that Grouch Marx quote wasn’t intended, as most people think, self-deprecation, but rather was mocking anti-semetism. It was made in response to the fact that after he became famous he was often offered membership in various clubs that wouldn’t have even considered letting the Jewish Julius Henry Marx join.

  32. James Pearce says:

    @Jack: Um…..we were talking about Brian Williams‘s honesty. You were the one who thought, “Let’s take this opportunity to talk about…..Hillary Clinton’s honesty.”

    I’m not suggesting you cannot use whatever laugh lines you’d like to use, Jack. I’m only suggesting that people are going to laugh at you if all you have are jokes.

  33. anjin-san says:


    Posting when you’ve been drinking is generally a bad idea…

  34. de stijl says:

    conservatives see liberalism everywhere

    People in the bubble see anyone who is demonstrably not conservative as liberal. Anything short of naked right wing advocacy is “liberal.”

    But there are vanishingly few liberals in American mainstream media. There are tons of slightly left-of-center (very, very slightly) reporters. Slightly left-of-center in America would be called conservative as measured by the rest of the First World.

    American right wingers have a very peculiar notion of what “liberal” actually means. (Not to mention the words “socialist” and “Kenyan” and “usurper”)

  35. Moosebreath says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    “It should be noted that Grouch Marx quote wasn’t intended, as most people think, self-deprecation, but rather was mocking anti-semetism. It was made in response to the fact that after he became famous he was often offered membership in various clubs that wouldn’t have even considered letting the Jewish Julius Henry Marx join.”

    In that vein, when his family was denied admission to a Long Island swim club for being Jewish, he remarked that his kids were only half-Jewish, and asked if they could go in up to their waists.

  36. Jack says:

    @James Pearce: I replied to a discussion about Hillary in this thread, so….

  37. James Pearce says:


    “I’m saying, analytically, that this opens up an opportunity for the Republicans, and I thought it’d be interesting to discuss it.”

    But does it? Does it really?

    What kind of “opportunity” for Republicans does this Brian Williams story open up? To talk about the same stuff they’d talk about on any given opportunity? What Republicans goals will be furthered by equating his dishonesty with Hillary’s?

  38. James Pearce says:


    I replied to a discussion about Hillary in this thread, so….

    You’re right. Pinky brought up Hillary.

    And you ran with it.

  39. Tyrell says:

    @James Pearce: The only pertinent and relevant “opportunity” is for people, like many on here, to discuss the decline in the news gathering and reporting industry as a whole. And what does this portend for the future generations ?
    “breaking news”: it is not news and it is not breaking.

  40. Tony W says:

    @James Pearce: Well, if all you have is straw men and ad-hominem, you gotta seize the opportunity!

  41. KM says:


    my uncle, who hit the beach at Omaha, telling me how little he could remember and how scared he was.

    Exactly. My grandfather (god rest him) was on Sword and all he would recall was flashes when he could even bear to talk about it at all. I was always puzzled as a child why my father, a decorated Vietnam vet, never had any stories to tell and was always tight-lipped about his time in country. The few stories he told stood out in their starkness – one, he remembered calling in to a ship for them to shell the enemy and the sound of the shells soaring overhead but couldn’t name where, when or even who he was fighting. All he could recall was they were far away (miles) but that the sound was so loud you’d swear they were next door. The sound is what stuck – the rest faded in horror.

    A good liar gives details to sound realistic. Williams is a civilian who doesn’t get shot at often but he has more details then most people can give the cops on a good day? He told a story to make himself look like a big man, someone who’s been through the wars (literally). That makes him a braggart but not necessarily a bad person. He just lucked out that he told his tall tale in a profession where honesty is supposed to be a basic premise, not at a bar where all the other wannabes can talk tough. “There I was with a fish THIS BIG….”

  42. Tillman says:

    @James Pearce: The closest I get to an open opportunity is Brian Williams becoming the face of how untrustworthy the lamestream media is. You could see that as a base-consolidating cry to ignore reports either praising the Dem nominee or criticizing the Repub one.

    The resemblance between Williams’s Chinook story and Clinton’s “sniper fire in Bosnia” story could be used, but it’s a facile comparison since the two had very different jobs. You don’t see Secretaries of State losing their jobs because they embellished something.

  43. CB says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Did not know that!

  44. James Pearce says:


    The resemblance between Williams’s Chinook story and Clinton’s “sniper fire in Bosnia” story could be used, but it’s a facile comparison since the two had very different jobs.

    And that’s only one of the reasons it’s a facile comparison.

  45. ernieyeball says:

    While I grew up watching Walter Cronkite every night…

    I was 26 in August of 1974 when Nixon resigned. I had just moved to San Francisco a few months earlier . Sometime that year I went to a quaint* neighborhood theatre and viewed the documentary I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1973).
    Stone foiled the charade of journalist detachment from the influence of the government officials being covered with a clip of Walter Cronkite playing tennis with Nixon’s mouthpiece Ron Ziegler. (If my memory serves…).
    Old Walt never did sound the same again.

    Two memorable quotes from Izzy:

    All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed.

    Rich people march on Washington every day.

    *quaint: The seats on the left side of the theatre were the smoking section.

  46. An Interested Party says:

    This story simply reinforces the built-in biases that so many people already have…the idea that this can somehow be used to hurt Hillary Clinton is laughable and a bit desperate…

  47. al-Ameda says:


    Not so, Cliffie. The liberals have moved so far left that the “center” is now left of Mao and Josef.

    Why yes, just the other day I was remarking to my friends about how nice it is that liberals now advocate a communist system of government here in America. You know what bothers me most about the proposed new Soviet USA? It’s the proposed Gulags out in South Carolina, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle that concern me most – why not Guantanamo for conservative dissidents? Also I definitely do not want to switch to a Russian or Chinese currency system, can’t we keep the dollar? Finally, I think that FoxNews can be “re-educated” to become America Pravda, don’t you?

  48. James Pearce says:

    @al-Ameda: Seriously…..if he had just called liberals fat and ugly, he would have been closer to the truth.

    Back to Brian Williams for a minute…..does anyone think his forays on late night TV and such would have “worked” had he not had that fakey vibe about him? His news work on NBC even kind of read as parody, the squinted eye to denote seriousness, so when he’s talking about something ridiculous, it becomes comedy.

    Imagine some of the greats trying to pull off all those skits. Would it “work?” I imagine Peter Jennings “slow jamming the news” would not only be unfunny; it would be uncomfortable.

  49. bill says:

    so 2 weeks later someone’s actually mentioning this in here? jon stewart got a thread within hours ….
    anyhow, williams is an ass for lying through his teeth so idiots who need to listen to the “haircut du jour” tell them what’s really “news”. they deserve each other.

  50. ernieyeball says: 2 weeks later someone’s actually mentioning this in here?

    I mentioned William’s Woes six days ago:

    ernieyeball says:
    Tuesday, February 10, 2015 at 20:14
    Apparently Brian Williams needs a new job…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  51. al-Ameda says:


    so 2 weeks later someone’s actually mentioning this in here? jon stewart got a thread within hours ….

    Why do conservatives always falsely claim that some story, in this case the Brian Williams story, is being ignored, when it clearly and demonstrably has not been ignored?

    Oh wait, don’t answer that, I know the answer: It’s because conservatives believe that Brian Williams is a liberal media guy and of course liberals are trying to distract us from this story.

  52. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @James Pearce: Well, that long conversation is my main argument against voting for either Hillary or Jeb. But is there really anyone out there whose election won’t stimulate that conversation on one side or the other?

    In the absence of an external threat, Americans look inward.

  53. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:


    I get most of the news from local am radio talk sessions

    That actually explains a lot. I see your conversations here in a new light.

  54. bill says:

    @ernieyeball: none of the contributors penned a story about it, some mentions appeared in the comments- hijacking a thread isn’t always bad i guess.

    @al-Ameda: um, 2 weeks after it blew open? it was a story EVERYWHERE- liberals & conservatives alike were chiming in.(huffpost had a great slam btw) but true, maybe liberals don’t want to talk about it much as williams seemed a little bent to the left….
    and really, who needs a haircut in a suit to read news that’s already a day old?

  55. ernieyeball says:

    @bill:..none of the contributors penned a story about it,..

    That was not your complaint in your post of Monday, February 16, 2015 at 22:00:

    so 2 weeks later someone’s actually mentioning this in here?

  56. R_Dave says:

    I think Stormy Dragon has the right of it with the constructed memory explanation. This sort of thing happens all the time with eyewitness accounts in crime investigations. People who get mugged or witness a robbery will swear up and down that they saw X or Y, even though the physical evidence or a video of the incident show something completely different. They’ll even go into great detail – describing how the gun was pointed right at them and they could see that was a revolver, etc., and yet it will turn out the suspect never had a gun at all. It’s not that these people are lying; it’s that some really frightening or traumatic thing happened, and their brains just grabbed some thematically related imagery and stitched it onto the memory. Williams’ comment about staring down the barrel of an RPG launcher makes me think that’s exactly what happened here. As a non-military guy, he heard the chopper crew say they were making an emergency landing because of enemy fire, that emergency landing was likely pretty abrupt and scary, and adrenaline combined with a lifetime worth of vivid war movie imagery in the recesses of his brain did the rest.

  57. Ken says:

    @R_Dave: It doesn’t actually require any fright or trauma at all – everyone has detailed, vivid and utterly real (to them) memories of things that never happened.

    All you have to do to prove it is to bring up some really old but memorable events from a long time ago at your next family gathering, especially ones that haven’t been talked about in a really long time. You’re pretty much guaranteed to get responses like “Oh yeah, I totally remember that, it was awesome! But it wasn’t Mark we were with, it was Joe” “No way it was Joe” says family member the third. “Yes it was too Joe. He even had that big brown backpack he always carried around – that’s what we stashed the booze in!” “No, we put the booze in Maude’s purse. I distinctly remember it because she nearly dumped the whole thing on the ground!”

    And around and around it goes, with cries of “That’s not how it went! Let me tell you what really happened”

    My wife likes to go to psychics. She’s well aware that I think they’re all either deluded or fraudulent, but she is convinced. After one conversation where I brought up the various methods they use to trick you , she came up with a great idea – she would record her next visit. That’ll show me!

    She came back from the visit all kinds of excited, going on about how this woman had talked at length about the spirit of her now dead ex-husband, including all kinds of details that she could have absolutely no way of knowing about their life, family, etc. When I mentioned that she had likely provided this information herself right there in the session, my wife was adamant – she had not said ANYTHING about those things. In fact she had hardly spoken at all – the psychic had done all the talking, and hardly even asked any questions.

    Cue up the tape recording, wherein we hear the two of them talking, with my wife going on at great length about all the things the psychic allegedly learned from the spirit. In the first twenty minutes of the tape, I swear to god the psychic couldn’t have said had more than two minutes of talk time, all of it either vague stereotypical psychic stuff, or direct (but subtly phrased) questions, while my wife told her all about the ex, their marriage, his shortcomings, his death, their kids, his job, their house, etc etc etc

    Listening to the tape, my wife was completely dumbfounded. Aside from the fact that I wa right, she really, honestly remembered it completely differently from what was on the tape. I mean, we were talking about an event that had happened less than three hours prior, and she was absolutely, utterly, and completely convinced not only of the general content of the session, but had clear, detailed, and completely convincing memories of several distinct things that happened during the session. Things which, when one listened to the tape, unequivocally did NOT happen

    The point of all this is not that my wife is a sucker for psychics, but that human memory is extremely unreliable even when it comes to non-traumatic or stressful things. Psychologists have known this for decades.

    “Oh wow I forgot all about that” is very common when going through old pictures, but “oh my god I would have sworn it was actually….” is not far behind

  58. michael reynolds says:

    It’s fascinating stuff. If we actually knew how unreliable memory is, we’d never get a conviction from eyewitness testimony.

    However. Reporters are not supposed to be just like everyone else. They are meant to be professional observers, held to a higher standard.