Some people are much harder to catch lying than others. Those who are smooth talkers, have great memories and lie often typically have an easier time passing off lies as if they are true. Criminals, actors and politicians are the flag bearers for this group (whether or not they all one in the same can be debated later). Now it looks like we need to add another group to the list – evening news anchors. Last night NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams apologized for fabricating a story that involved him being inside a helicopter that was forced to land after being hit by an RPG in Iraq in 2003 and blamed the incorrect story on his foggy memory.
It appears as though Brian’s initial reports on the incident were accurate, and over time his reports strayed further away from the truth. In the spring of 2003 he reported that after his helicopter landed he was informed that another helicopter flying in front of him was struck by an RPG. Over the next ten years it appears that his story changed slightly as he recounted the helicopter in front the one he was flying in was struck. He eventually graduated to saying the helicopter he was in was struck by enemy fire in an interview with David Letterman in 2013 and an NBC Nightly News Segment last Friday.
Below is the video from his interview with David Letterman (it is a little grainy and has Italian subtitles). Take a quick look at the video and see if you can spot any indications that Brian is misleading David.
Brian was very smooth in delivering his story. His smooth delivery was aided by the fact that some elements of his story were true, the comedic atmosphere of the interview, his career of public story telling, and a captive and friendly audience. Looking back at the video today there are two potential red flags.
When Brian talks about being out ahead of the American invasion and being the most northeast Americans in Iraq at the start of his story, and at the end of his story, he flashes large smiles which appear to indicate that he is very proud of this.
When Brian speaks of his helicopter being hit he looks down and to his right and takes a deep breath. By looking down to the right Brian was likely experiencing some emotional shift related to this moment in the story. The two most likely causes for this eye movement would be either an emotional shift related to reliving the incident or an emotional shift related to fabricating the incident. Considering Brian’s admission, it is now much safer to say he was experiencing an emotional conflict while telling a fabricated element of the story.
Now we must ask ourselves, why would he lie about this? The most likely reason was to build his image and increase the respect and credibility people view him with. This is one of the most common motivations behind exaggerated stories and one that David Letterman plays right into at the end of the clip.
This video clip serves to reinforce three lessons. The first is some people sound much more believable than others when they are dishonest. The second is sometimes very small indicators can be the only clues that a story may not be completely true. And finally, sometimes we want a story to be true badly enough we automatically accept it at face value.