News anchor in disgrace: media, memory, and questions of knowledge

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(Originally posted on Activating TOK) If there’s one quality we all want in news announcers it is their truthfulness. A liar is not what we want. It’s not surprising, then, that one of the most widely covered news stories of recent weeks is the one directed at exposing famous NBC News “anchorman” Brian Williams–as a liar. So high profile is this story that if you take it to a TOK class you can expect most students to have heard it (at least in North America.)

As for the lie itself, well, according to Williams he was traveling in a helicopter in Iraq in 2003, when it was hit by enemy fire. The truth? It wasn’t. (In fact, another helicopter traveling ahead of him by more than half an hour was hit—though Williams’ helicopter did land to avoid a dangerous situation.)

Ask the same TOK class what knowledge questions related to shared knowledge emerge from this story and, no doubt, many will point out those associated with trusting news media. The fact that Williams did not present his story as a news story will hardly take away from the point. This emphasis, however, obscures an even more interesting question for TOK, one raised by psychologists commenting on the story. Is it possible that it illustrates not a failure of honesty but the normal workings of fallible memory?

1. Knowledge questions regarding news media: To what extent and in what ways can we trust the media as a reliable source of shared knowledge? Of what characteristics of media should we be aware as we try to gain knowledge from them?

Some students will no doubt point out that the story reminds us that news is often distorted, slanted in its selection and language (TOK language), or completely wrong– though some news sources have earned reputations as being comparatively reliable and even “objective.”

Some, too, will no doubt point out that one of the most dominant news stories involves the failures of competitor news media. The irony is obvious.

Others might point out that the story brings to light the problems with a widespread inclination to put truly peculiar trust (Might we call this “faith” as a way of knowing, according to one definition?) in a particular news “anchor”–without stopping to ask whether this news anchor is much more than a ventriloquist’s puppet, merely reading out the lines written by others. They might be particularly interested in commenting on the fact that in the United States, as one of “the most trusted people in the country” Williams has dropped from 23rd to 835th–and speculating on how and why he was given that trust in the first place.

Along this line, others are likely to add that the public isn’t entirely to blame, given the tactics used by news media to build an aura of charisma, trust and authority around their much-hyped “anchors.”

Yet others will probably respond by pointing out that these media themselves aren’t entirely to blame: they are, some might argue, merely playing into a common human weakness to place faith in the “wiseman” or “wise woman” as extraordinary (and nearly infallible) sources of knowledge.   It wouldn’t take long to take a romp through fantasy fiction and myth on the one hand, or the history of cults, political movements and some religions on the other to make the point.   Many, many of us want a Gandalf or a guru.

2. Knowledge questions regarding memory: To what extent is memory reliable as a way of knowing? In trying to gain knowledge, of what limitations should we be aware concerning memory as a justification?

What makes this particular example interesting to discuss in a TOK class, however, is the way media have pursued the story as repercussions, accusations, and analyses have followed. The fact that Williams has given differing explanations and apologies, not entirely consistent with each other, has been followed up with stories of his being suspended from NBC for six months and his resigning from the board of directors of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation.

This is all as we might expect.

What we might not expect quite so obviously, however, is that the response to this story has been quite different from psychologists, neurologists, and other professionals working in related fields. For them–and, for a TOK class–the story is perhaps most striking not for what it shows about news media as for what it shows about that elusive way of knowing–memory.

Key to the interest taken by this group is one of Williams’ statements:

“You are absolutely right and I was wrong,” he wrote [on Facebook], adding that he had in fact been on the helicopter behind the one that had been hit. Constant viewing of the video showing him inspecting the impact area, he said, “and the fog of memory over 12 years — made me conflate the two, and I apologize.”

The TOK Course Book  provides many insights into the nature of memory that can alert students to the peculiar role that memory may well be playing in this situation.

“Memory, clearly, does not operate on its own as a way of knowing. It interacts with sense perception and emotion, intuition and language–not just in the content of memories retained of the past but also in the processas we recall the past, reshape it, or forget it. As [a] New Jersey judge summed it up, ‘Memory is a constructive, dynamic, and selective process.’” (TOK Course Book, p. 107)

Neurologist Steven Novella points out how Williams’ behaviour is entirely consistent with the way memory can misfire. Writing in his blog NeuroLogica and adding additional thoughts in his podcast, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe (Episode 501, February 14) he makes three main points:

1. Each time we recall an event we commonly see it as more dramatic or sensational than we did initially.

2. We typically recall such events with vivid clarity, thus making us all the more convinced that our memory is accurate. As Novella writes of Williams, “He may have been falsely reassured by the clarity of his memory, which is not a good predictor of veracity.”

3. In each recollection of an event in which we have played a tangential role we commonly pull ourselves closer and closer to the centre of the event until, in some cases, we are playing a central role.

Writing in Discovery News, Benjamin Radford develops this latter point:

“A review of the evolution of Williams’s account suggests a clue about how the incident could have migrated from one helicopter to another. In a 2013 retelling of the story to David Letterman in which Williams stated that his helicopter had been hit, he repeatedly uses the word “we” to describe the group he was in that came under fire. There seemed to be a blurring of the distinction in his mind between “we” (the crew and passengers on the specific helicopter he was on) and “we” (the whole group on that mission, of whom he states “two of our four helicopters were hit… we were only at 100 feet doing 100 forward knots” — which accurately described all of the helicopters, including both the one that was hit and the one he was in).

“…[his]use of the words “we” and “us” to describe who came under fire suggests that he began to see himself as the target and possibly misremember whose helicopter was actually hit.”

4. Writing in the Associated Press, Meghan Barr reports another psychologist and adds another crinkle:

“We all change our memories to fit with constantly evolving societal norms: sharpening the details that we’re comfortable with and forgetting the ones that are inconvenient or uncomfortable, said Harold Takooshian, a psychology professor at Fordham University.

‘So the bottom line is that Brian Williams is 100 percent normal: It seems to me he was just exaggerating and he started believing what he said,’ Takooshian said.

5. Psychologist Almut Hupbach points out  the additional role played by trauma (an aspect examined in the TOK Course Book, p. 105, in the chapter on TOK emotion):

“How is it possible to remember something initially and then change your account of the experience later on? You can imagine that being in a helicopter under Iraqi attack would be extremely stressful. This stress could have been further exacerbated by the fact that for some time while in the air, Williams probably didn’t know exactly what was going on or why his helicopter had to land. There was lots of uncertainty.

“In times of stress, our attention narrows–we can only take in the crucial aspects of an experience, ignoring details that are not central to our survival. So Williams most likely already started out with a fuzzy memory. Given its traumatic character, we can assume that Williams recounted this memory many times in the weeks and months following the incident, frequently reactivating the memory, and potentially imagining different outcomes.

“We know from research that memory reactivation makes memories temporarily fragile. Imagining something that didn’t happen but is related to what actually did happen can rather easily infiltrate our memories.

“And these distortions are more likely to occur with time. This can explain why eyewitness reports are so unreliable. In the aftermath of an event, especially a significant one, people ask questions, and make suggestions–and the way the questions are asked and what they suggest alters memories.”

Can we know whether Brian Williams was lying or whether he was misremembering? From the point of view of TOK that matters less than the fact that this high profile news story is a powerful vehicle for illuminating much about the way we gain shared knowledge–or think we do.


Eileen Dombrowski, Mimi Bick, Lena Rotenberg. Theory of Knowledge Course Book. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Photo: Dust qualification training by The U.S. Army, CC BY 2.0 via Flicker