Brian Williams ‘Flub’ Can Be Explained Away By ‘Science’?

Posted on Sun 02/08/2015 by


TimGrahampicture-13-1409699701By Tim Graham ~

Of all the things written about the Brian Williams affair, this trend is the most hilarious: The Washington Post opining about the validity of false memory.  If this kind of article isn’t seen as the most obvious example of journalists circling wagons around a lying colleague, what could be more obvious?

The headline was “The science behind Brian Williams’s mortifying memory flub.” Amy Ellis Nutt insisted Williams wasn’t unusual in lying to make himself look good:brianwilliams-300-05222008[1]

Scientists have been telling us for years that memory of autobiographical events, also known as episodic memory, is pliable and even unreliable. The consensus from neuroimaging studies and laboratory experiments is that episodic memory is not like replaying a film but more like reconstructing an event from bits and pieces of information. Memories are stored in clusters of neurons called engrams, and the proteins responsible for storing those memories, scientists say, are modified and changed just by the reconstruction process of remembering….

Using neuroimaging, Northwestern University scientist Ken A. Paller was able to offer one reason that people can misremember something as important as being shot at or a terrorist attack. Paller determined which parts of the brain were activated in forming a false memory and which when forming a real memory. The finding: The part of the brain that perceives an object or event overlaps with the part that imagines an object or event.

Jessica Goldstein at the liberal blog Think Progress also played along. Brian Williams is only human, not superhuman. You can’t expect journalists not to lie to inflate their resume:

“Memory is not a tape recorder. Memory is reconstructive,” Hirst said. “You build your memories as you go along. We consolidate memories. There’s also evidence that, every time we retrieve a memory, it makes it vulnerable to reconsolidation. So if we retrieve something and tell that story at a dinner party, and slightly exaggerate your role, it reconsolidate to incorporate that exaggeration. And the next time you’re telling it, you’re building on that. You can see how the story can grow. And the stories we end up telling reflect the social framework in which we live.”

“I don’t think it reflects on his credibility,” [psychologist William] Hirst said. “It reflects on him being a human being. And we shouldn’t think of reporters as being somehow superhuman.”

Sometimes, said [psychologist Stephen] Lindsay, people who embroider stories aren’t aware of what they’re doing “because they’re not focusing on accuracy; they’re focusing on social impact, or self presentation.” There’s a difference between that kind of conscious dramatization, he said, and calculating misrepresentation.

Tim Graham contributes at NewsBusters. He is Director of  Media Analysis at the Media Research Center and is the author of the book “Pattern Of Deception: The Media’s Role In The Clinton Presidency”.

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