Brian Williams and the Memory Thing

February 12, 2015

My friend was all over the Brian Williams memory thing the other day. (My friend lives in a state of mind call FarRight-i-stan. So I do thank Mr. Williams for giving me a break from “Your President Obama *5^y$A! did … .”) For a good overview, here’s Brian Williams Suspended From NBC for 6 Months Without Pay by Emily Steel and Ravi Somaiya for the New York Times on February 10.

I was paying little attention to the story until I read Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?, written by Tara Parker-Pope for Well, a New York Times blog, on February 9. False memory interests me, mostly because of the Innocence Project.

The Innocence Project has helped set aside 325 convictions on the basis of actual innocence. Actual innocence does not mean “technicalities” like ignoring proper law enforcement procedures, violating constitutional mandates, or having defense counsel asleep during a death penalty trial. It means “some other dude did it,” for real! (As an aside the Innocence Project is a wonderful organization, deserving of support.)

In most of the 325 cases eyewitness testimony played a role in wrongful convictions. We give lots of credit to testimony from someone who says “I saw her.” If a credible person gets on the witness stand and points a finger at the defendant, the outcome is almost always “guilty.” Unfortunately, eyewitnesses are often wrong. Really! Here’s Eyewitness Testimony by Saul McLeod for Simply Psychology, from 2009, with a basic overview of the problem.

Now, remembering incorrectly and getting it wrong are not one and the same. They’re certainly related, though, for in each case information gets provided with an unwarranted level of certainty.

Then there’s the matter of lying. Plenty of people think Brian Williams lied. And maybe he did, just as it happens that people sit on the witness stand and lie about where they were and what they saw.

I deal with memory in my work all the time. I know certain things did or did not happen, and sometimes facts can be proven. On the other hand—and this is especially true in transactional settings—people interpret what they hear and see. An interpretation may be wrong and false, but the person who has advanced it may not be lying at all. So I tend to step lightly when it comes to using the “L” word to describe this or that.

Now, about two of my memories. I was six when we attended the World’s Fair in 1964 in New York City. I recall a day during which we walked through Greenwich Village. I remember walking behind my family, ending up at a street corner by myself, seeing a traffic officer, turning around, and finding my family in the shop—a book store, I’m pretty sure—they had entered.

I also remember being on a Boeing 707 for the flights to and from New York. And I remember a large bathroom at the back of the plane, with several sinks.

Did I get lost in Greenwich Village for a few minutes? To this day my mother says it didn’t happen, and I’m pretty damn sure it did. But, was there a bathroom at the back of the jet with several sinks? No. No way! And that fact, coupled with my thinking about the memory issue, has me doubting what really happened in Greenwich Village that afternoon, more than 50 years ago.

I don’t know or care very much about Brian Williams, except for feeling sad that a seemingly decent fellow must be in great pain right now. I give him the benefit of the doubt but—and this is a big deal for me—he holds a position of public trust. He gets only one pass! Once a faulty memory—or a lie—became evident he needed to shut up about the helicopter incident. Forever! He didn’t! Godspeed, Mr. Williams, and goodbye!

As for the rest of the issue, we need to better understand, collectively, the fallibility of our minds as video cameras. Innocent people are sitting in prison. Some have been convicted of capital murder and are sitting on death row, making it highly likely that actually innocent people have been executed. Yes, memory and the mind are complicated matters, but it’s 2015, we’re smart, and we need to be more mindful of our limitations.

P.S. I wrote this piece a few days go. I stand by everything, but for giving Mr. Williams the benefit of the day. The increasingly large body of evidence suggests makes false memory harder and harder to accept.

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