I’ve read a bunch of stuff over the past few days about Brian Williams and whether he lied about what happened to him in Iraq in 2003 or just got confused because he was relatively close (or not very, according to some accounts in this New York Times story) to another helicopter that did take fire and was subsequently forced to land.
I’m paying close attention to this story, by the way, because I teach a class called “Covering Traumatic Events” that looks closely at how people behave under duress, what makes an event traumatic, and how human beings — with a special focus on journalists — cope with trauma.
I’m not a psychologist. I’m an editor, teacher and former victim’s advocate who has listened to many gut-wrenching stories over the years about the terrible things that people live through. I’ve gained a little insight into how people process trauma and what it can do to memory.
So here’s my conclusion from all this reading and thinking about Williams and his tale of having “conflated” what happened to someone else with what happened to him: I don’t believe him. I think Brian Williams got caught in a lie and then piled an improbability on top of a lie. I think he wanted to be a big shot — G. I. Journalist — and thought that because of who he is, people would let him get away with it. Or maybe he just doesn’t have anyone in his life regularly calling him on his bullshit, and so he has come to believe in his own tall tales.
But this is a bad one, and this is what I wish he’d said when he got caught:
I’m truly sorry for what I did. I’ve obviously spent too long behind a desk and have begun to romanticize the experience of being shot at while on assignment. I’ve also obviously lost touch with the terror that ordinary people caught in conflict experience every day as they try to go to work, take care of their children and just generally live their lives. I’ve forgotten the toll conflict takes on human beings — especially children — every day, all over the world. And I’ve made a mockery of the real risks that journalists and others take every day in the most dangerous places on earth to bear witness to human suffering so that those of us who are lucky enough to live in safety and comfort won’t forget what’s happening in some faraway place to people we should care about. My lie was disrespectful to those who are living in fear, surviving loss, rebuilding after a trauma or suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. It was also disrespectful to my colleagues in journalism, especially those not fortunate enough to have flak jackets, bodyguards and the support of a major television network. I apologize to each and every one of you and have decided to donate my next year’s salary to Doctors Without Borders and other organizations that work on the front lines to help survivors of conflict.
There you go, Brian Williams. Feel free to use it. It’s my gift to you as you embark on a period of introspection and unavoidable personal growth.