Lost in Conflation

brian williamsPoor Brian Williams. The NBC newsman is being pummeled for having said he was aboard a military helicopter when it was shot down in Iraq in 2003. He has apologized, saying he had been in a different helicopter, behind the one that had been fired upon and, as The New York Times reported, had inadvertently “conflated” the two. The paper wrote, “The explanation earned him not only widespread criticism on radio and TV talk shows, but widespread ridicule on Twitter, under the hashtag ‘#BrianWilliamsMisremembers.’

Similarly, Hilary Clinton was ridiculed after she acknowledged having “misspoken” when she described running across a tarmac to avoid sniper fire upon landing in Bosnia when she was first lady in 1996.hilary clinton

I like Brian Williams and not just because he grew up in New Jersey as I did. And I like Hilary Clinton. I sympathize with both of them for finding themselves lost in conflation. I understand how it can happen. You’re close by a scary event, you realize it could have been you experiencing it and not the people who actually did experience it, and over time you internalize the details so that it becomes, in your mind, something that really happened to you. That’s not the same as lying. As a public figure, you’d have to know that other people were there, and if you were lying, they’d know it. Why would you put yourself in that position?

After more than half a century together, Ed and I share many stories of things we experienced jointly. Frequently, he “misremembers” the details of one event or another. Sometimes I correct him and sometimes I let it go. What difference does it make? And I’m sure he does the same with me when I “misremember” things.

The difference with Brian Williams and Hilary Clinton and other public figures is just that: They are public figures. And they have staffs. Were their staff members so cowed that one could not have taken the boss aside and pointed out the “misremembering” before it became fodder for late night comics?

The last time we were together with both our daughters and their husbands, our older daughter told a story of how she had been destined to be left-handed but that I, being left-handed myself, was determined to try to prevent that, placing items in her right hand and not the left. I had to tell that daughter that that story was not hers; it was her sister’s. I did indeed try to encourage both daughters to have an easier time in life by being right-handed. And the older daughter went along with it. But every time I placed an item in her younger sister’s hand, she’d move it to her left. After many months of this, I gave up. But the older daughter, having heard that story her entire life, had conflated it to be about her. No big deal; it happens. “I’m sorry,” I told that daughter, “but I was there and that’s what I remember.”

But who knows. Maybe I’m the one who “misremembered.”

5 comments on “Lost in Conflation

  1. Roger Keyser says:

    ‘Misremembering’ is an interesting concept. I just Googled it to be sure it is a real word — interesting how much chatter it brings up. I am sure you are right that we all do it, usually innocently, especially on old memories that we often recall. But I especially like your idea to just ignore it. Really, in most cases, what difference does it make? Too often, I tend to be a stickler for details, derailing some great conversation with friends, just to set the record straight. And yes, I could just as well be the one who is misremembering. However, those public figures are different. Their staffs ought to be diligently guarding such public statements, lest they set off a needless firestorm of criticism and accusations.

    • patnieder says:

      Yup. I just can’t imagine staff members allowing that to happen. Similarly, as I wrote, I also can’t imagine smart people knowingly fabricating lies that they have to realize will be debunked eventually.

  2. patnieder says:

    Several commentators have pointed out that TV’s nightly news does not hold the same importance in people’s lives as it once did now that updates come in throughout the day on all manner of devices. (Which is why I watch Rachel Maddow every evening.) To compete, news programs feel the need to become more like entertainment programs. Ironically, at the same time so-called comedy programs like Jon Stewart and John Oliver are taking on more serious subjects. As Alva Noe said on NPR, “Brian Williams is a storyteller, and storytellers can’t resist a good story.”

    For more on this see:



  3. Roger Keyser says:

    Thanks for sharing those great links, too. Both articles alerted me to the fact that I probably watch TV network news more for its entertainment value than for factual information. Perhaps it is time to break that habit. I do enjoy watching, but maybe I should join the new generation’s practice. With so many sources continually available for either/both entertainment and factual reporting via social media and the Web, why do I persist in recording and watching multiple nightly TV news shows? I liked Walter Cronkite too, but there was such a high degree of trust back then. Hmmmm.

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