Truth and lies and faulty memories and Brian Williams

My mind was boggled to hear Brian Williams could think he was in a helicopter that was under attack and forced to make a landing when, in fact, he was in a different helicopter right behind it that didn’t come under attack.

I might have thought, did he misspeak? Is he being defamed, even, however unlikely that would be? But when I heard the news, it was because Williams was apologizing. OK, then. That’s a weird thing to get wrong, and in that way, but maybe, perhaps, his memory betrayed him amid the nerves and rush of that day.

Brian Williams (Wikipedia via David Shankbone)
Brian Williams (Wikipedia via David Shankbone)

Then, we learn, he was in a helicopter that came in behind the one that took fire, but the aircraft with Williams on it came in as much as an hour later.

That’s even worse. Williams is still misremembering, or badly wrote his apology. And that’s the best-case scenario. 

But wait, the pilot also remembered things similarly to Williams. Until he didn’t.

All this is bad, perhaps even a firing offense. In Williams’ defense, he has apologized, and theoretically, there could be enough ambiguity — his frail memory, a possibility some of the soldiers involved misremembering aspects — to allow Williams and his career to limp onward. No more “SNL” appearances, perhaps, but the anchor desk could remain his. There’s also the practical matter of NBC having no succession plan and owing Williams a lot of money.

But what kind of career would that be? Should we really be, in effect, saying, “Brian Williams is fine to remain the face of a news-gathering operation as long as we don’t ask him to ever recount his experiences more than a few days after they happen”?

I don’t believe this is a three-strikes-and-you’re-out situation. We might disagree on what categorizes a “minor” mistake of a journalist, or what is a correctable error of judgment versus a character flaw, but we can all acknowledge that those categories exist. We can also acknowledge that people will do things because of personal problems and addictions, and those infractions deserve accountability but also empathy and assistance. But Williams’ situation doesn’t appear to meet any of those standards.

Even under a best-case scenario, the faulty memory and all that, we have evidence of a lack of care, a hubris, an aversion to fact-checking and detail, and an understandable-yet-controllable urge to be the hero. My goodness, he basically runs NBC News — all he’d have to say before going on an NBC program, or Letterman, or Alec Baldwin’s radio show is, “Interns, can you help double-check my memory on this one? I’m proud of my work covering the war in Iraq but because I admire those veterans so much, I don’t want to get it wrong.”

Does that mean Brian Williams can’t have any type of career? Well, practically speaking, even if he’s fired today, he’ll land on his feet. Plenty of people have done way worse but are brought back because, as Bill Burr says, “[Y]ou just sit there and wait for the phone to ring because you know you can make people money.”

Look, Williams’ talent is not strictly about news-gathering and reporting. There are lots of other jobs out there for having a great voice, hair and looks while lacking any ability to recall vivid personal memories correctly. Hell, being a talk show or radio host might really be better for him. He’s a moderator, a host, a facilitator. And there’s a place for that. Maybe just not on NBC Nightly News.

Why does this matter for me, or for you? Because if your job projects, “Listen to me, I’ll tell you what you need to know,” you need to be honest  and fair and forthright and, when you inevitably are wrong or rash or mean, to recover and fix your mistakes. 

This is a journalism crisis, but it’s also a leadership crisis. We’ll be repeating Williams’ hubris if we don’t hold ourselves to account in our own lives, in our own organizations and with the people around us.

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