NBC probes Brian Williams' dubious anecdotes: Will the 'gist' save him?

Credibility and trustworthiness are the cornerstones of the anchor business. NBC News has launched an investigation into TV anchorman Brian Williams' questionable assertions about his reporting from Iraq and Hurricane Katrina. 

Andrew Toth/Starpix/AP
Brian Williams appears at the Cantor Fitzgerald Charity Day event in New York in 2012. NBC News anchor Williams has admitted he spread a false story about being on a helicopter that came under enemy fire while he was reporting in Iraq in 2003.

Brian Williams, like all reporters who put their boots on the ground, is a professional human filter sifting a pipeline of anecdotes, facts, observations, and hunches that journalists, especially television newscasters, use to describe events in dramatic ways for an audience of millions to digest.

NBC News, Mr. Williams’ employer, has now launched an investigation into whether the self-styled “everyman” anchor, who heads the nation’s most popular nightly newscast, went beyond telling viewers the “gist” of what happened in Iraq and Katrina and instead made up details to make his own role seem more dramatic.

In one case, Williams said an Army helicopter he was riding on in 2003 was forced down by rocket-propelled grenades in Iraq, which is not, according to soldiers who were there, what happened. In fact, as he has now conceded, Williams was riding in a rear guard helicopter which may or may not have taken small arms fire, according to contradictory accounts.

Williams’ further assertions that he witnessed horrific scenes in a flooded French Quarter during Katrina will also be scrutinized by a network team after reporters in New Orleans pointed out that the famed tourist haunt never flooded after the storm, as did many lower-lying parts of the city. (Others have said that the hotel where Williams stayed was near a flooded area where he might have seen a floating body.)

The stakes are high for the network and Mr. Williams. Credibility and trustworthiness are the cornerstones of the anchor business, which in the US is still patterned on the Walter Cronkite model of voice-of-God reporting.

Williams has in part given “Nightly News” a viewership boost by speaking more plainly, and in a contemporary, sometimes humorously self-deprecating, vernacular. The program pulled in $200 million in revenue in 2013, far ahead of its nearest competitor.

But for reporters especially and the public more peripherally, NBC’s search into the veracity of their star anchor’s recall will also be a journey into the mists of memory itself, where researchers say nearly everyone can at times get lost.

“There’s a lot of ways in which memory can become distorted, and it certainly is possible in this case,” Daniel Schachter, a Harvard psychology professor, told the Los Angeles Times.

Getting the right “gist” of a story is how news is presented by the best reporters. Obviously, the facts have to be right, but the sausage-making aspect of creating a news story can be complicated, and is, at heart, a very human, mistake-prone endeavor.

Time, researchers say, may not just obscure memory, but morph it. A newsman whose head is brimming with details from a thousand different assignments may be particularly prone, it could be argued.

The transformation of a precisely factual tale into a dramatic but more general memory has been referred to as “fade to gist,” according to Charles Brainerd, a Cornell University professor of human development, who talked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“What happens in everyday life is that we store two kinds of memories,” he told the newspaper. “We store memories for the actual event themselves. And we also store the gist of our experience.”

In other words, a men’s league hockey player may remember the excitement of the night his team won a championship, but not all the pertinent details of how the game was won.

Some commentators argued that critics – including a lot of newspaper writers – should cut Williams some slack.

“The story of what happened to the lead Chinook was broadcast inside Williams’ own helicopter and … he may have lived it vicariously and then over time inserted himself into the story,” writes Juan Cole, on Reader Supported News. “In any case, those who haven’t risked their lives in a war zone (which is what Williams did) maybe shouldn’t be so glib in condemning someone who did.”

But for the news business, especially, it’s a danger-fraught situation. Facts are, after all, the tools of the trade, and suggestions that all memory is somehow fallible runs roughshod over notions that reporters are ordained by professional standards and personal ethics to tell the truth about what actually happened.

It’s that reality that former New York Daily News editor Richard Esposito will probe as he tries to quell a growing crisis at NBC. He’s been tapped to lead a small team, much as the New York Times did in investigating the fabulist writer Jayson Blair, to figure out whether Williams breached ethics, or simply mis-remembered dramatic events of which he, no one disputes, took a part.

The main question Mr. Esposito will surely ask is: It’s one thing to misremember details, but wouldn’t being forced down by RPG fire on the battlefield be something one would never forget?

The anchor delivered an apology Wednesday on "NBC Nightly News," admitting he "made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago."

Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, asked Williams directly about his recall, to which the anchor said, “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.”

With NBC launching an investigation, it’s now clear that Williams’ self-dramatized anecdote may get him fired, though, given his value as a brand, the bar for that outcome will likely be very high.

“Maybe a need to be a brand spurred Williams to tell this story,” writes Ben Levin, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It was captivating. And maybe now being that brand will save him at a time when the popularity – and moral authority – of nightly news shows is on the decline.”

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