“Real Time with Bill Maher” features comedian Bill Maher interviewing intelligent guests who can offer up opinions and information on a variety of topics. The show is very funny, and it’s easy for Maher to criticize the people he mocks. Comedy comes easy to him, but the work is hard. He has to work hard to channel that easy comedy into a good show, and he relies more on his own humor than his expertise in any given subject to make that show work. He cracks jokes so the serious topics his guests are discussing aren’t too heavy for his one hour program. He doesn’t have to be like Brian Williams, who must rely heavily on an excellent memory no matter what circumstance he is in.
In 2003, Brian Williams was reporting in Iraq. For whatever reason, he remembers the helicopter he was in as being hit by an RPG and “forced down.” He stated, “Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armor mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry.” This has all been debunked. Brian Williams’ helicopter was not shot by an RPG. However, another helicopter was shot down an hour prior to his helicopter arriving. He conflated the two incidents and claims it was an accident.
On tonight’s episode of Maher’s show, Maher mocked Williams because this all seemed unbelievable to him. He mock defended the false helicopter story by blaming the fabrication on Williams’ age. People become increasingly absentminded as they get older. Maher sarcastically noted that they forget things like where they put their car keys. He had that knowing smirk on his face that viewers are all familiar with. Forgetting where you put your car keys is a far cry from forgetting whether or not your helicopter was shot down by an RPG.
The truth is that Williams was in a high stress environment when he was covering the Iraq war. His helicopter very well could have been shot down. There is no doubt that he was under stress, and severe stress does play tricks on people’s memories. It may not be believable if he misremembered his helicopter being hit by an RPG while flying over California. But he was in a war zone in Iraq, and being shot down would have been a very big fear for him. That fear could have lodged in his mind so firmly that it really did create a false memory.
His reporting of Hurricane Kartina has also been called into question. He recalls a disturbing experience of seeing a dead man floating by his French Quarter hotel room. He also remembers getting dysentery from dirty water. However, this is now all being contested. There are reports that the French Quarter didn’t have enough flooding for him to have seen a dead man floating by, and his dysentery diagnosis has not been verified.
Maher questioned whether or not Williams should resign as a reporter. He wondered if Williams has a pattern of lying or if the helicopter story is just a “one time thing.” Plagiarism and embellishment are serious offenses in journalism. But it is not difficult to find instances of people misremembering major things. Hilary Clinton said in 2008 that she remembered landing in Bosnia under sniper fire in 1996. This was disproved, and she called the false memory a “blip”. Certainly, it is not difficult to find many instances of small children having false memories implanted into their heads about sexual molestation. People are impressionable, especially when they are under stress. Bill Maher doesn’t have the experience of reporting from war zones or from the middle of natural disasters. His stance on Brian Williams might be different if he did have those experiences. How good would Maher’s memory be if he wasn’t shielded by the safety of his talk show, and he had to report on horrific events that he actually had to travel to.