Brian Williams and the lame “false memory” defense

     NBC News anchor Brian Williams speaks to the audience at the Stand Up for Heroes event at Madison Square Garden in 2013. (John Minchillo/InvisionAP)

    NBC News anchor Brian Williams speaks to the audience at the Stand Up for Heroes event at Madison Square Garden in 2013. (John Minchillo/InvisionAP)

    Since Brian Williams is still the topic du jour, I’ll weigh in with the material that fell outside the purview of my Friday lampoon. What interests me most is the lame excuse invoked by his defenders.

    Call it the “false memory” defense. According to this school of thought, the NBC News anchorman deserves our sympathy because he’s just as dotty as the rest of us, because he has merely indulged the all-too-human temptation to embellish and misremember. Some defenders have even tried to dress up the argument by citing a 2011 shrink study which says that false memories are common after emotional experiences. (From the study: “Our results indicate a double-dissociation between the subjective feeling of remembering, and the objective memory accuracy for details…”)

    In layman’s terms, Dr. Ford Vox, a physician and brain injury specialist, says that false memories “are in fact normal, right alongside your occasionally forgotten car keys, your missing wallet or even your misremembered conversation. Brian Williams has experienced a very public symptom of life, and we should all forgive him for that. Let he who has never lost his keys cast the first tomato.”

    What a ridiculous argument.

    This isn’t about your average Joe who loses his car keys, or inflates his high school athletic exploits, or mistakenly thinks that his forebears landed penniless at Ellis Island, or insists that he saw Ted Williams homer in his final at-bat in Fenway Park in 1960. Nope. This is about a professional communicator who’s paid $10 million a year to get things right.

    It’s false equivalence to award Williams the excuse of “false memory.” It’s a mundane misdemeanor, at worst, to invent colorful details about the moment you met your future spouse. It’s a professional felony when a newsman falsely (and repeatedly) claims to have been in a chopper hit by an RPG.

    So what explains Williams’ behavior? That’s an easy one.

    Williams isn’t a newsman in the traditional sense, because that tradition – particularly in broadcasting – is dead. The line that once separated news from entertainment has been erased. Back in the heyday of broadcast journalism, Walter Cronkite was an ex-wire service reporter who had been schooled to tell the facts straight. Cronkite didn’t hang out on Johnny Carson’s couch, embellishing his World War II reporting stints. Edward R. Murrow didn’t pop up on CBS sitcoms, playing himself and delivering comic zingers.

    Williams, by contrast, has buffed his brand as a hybrid news-entertainer. One day he’s anchoring the news on the road, with a hot story as a backdrop. The next day he’s on the couch hanging with Jimmy Fallon, or Conan O’Brien, or David Letterman. (He inflated the Iraq story on Letterman’s show.) Or he’s sending himself up on 30 Rock, or hosting Saturday Night Live.

    Granted, there’s no use pining for the Good Old Days when news and entertainment were housed in different silos; heck, we’ve often benefited from their fusion, as best demonstrated by Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, and Stephen Colbert. But Williams has shown us the downside. He has become an all-purpose “personality,” selling himself on multiple “platforms,” embellishing and milking his news exploits for studio audience amusement.

    In previous eras, a “personality” like Zsa Zsa Gabor regaled talk show audiences with tales about her nine husbands. Nobody knew whether any of the stories were true, and nobody cared; her job was to entertain, and she did. Brian Williams’ job should be loftier than that, but, sadly, what I fear is that he’s merely a symptom of the new normal.

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    But here’s how I’ll cut Williams a break:

    If only everyone had probed the Bush administration’s prewar Iraq lies with a shred of the energy they’re currently devoting to Williams’ Iraq lies, thousands of American soldiers might be alive today.

    Or, to quote Chris Rock, “Brian Williams becomes the first person ever to be punished for lying about Iraq.”

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    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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