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Bill O'Reilly Is Just the Latest Example of False Memory

Much like his peer Brian Williams, Bill O'Reilly's mind might be playing tricks on him.
Bill O’Reilly talks with soldiers at Iraq's Camp Striker in 2006. (Photo: Chris McCann/Wikimedia Commons)

Bill O’Reilly talks with soldiers at Iraq's Camp Striker in 2006. (Photo: Chris McCann/Wikimedia Commons)

Just weeks after Bill O’Reilly criticized NBC’s Brian Williams and all left-leaning media outlets for dishonesty and distorting facts, the Fox anchor faces false memory allegations of his own. Mother Jones reports:

On his television show, the top-rated cable news anchor declared that the American press isn't "half as responsible as the men who forged the nation." He bemoaned the supposed culture of deception within the liberal media, and he proclaimed that the Williams controversy should prompt questioning of other "distortions" by left-leaning outlets. Yet for years, O'Reilly has recounted dramatic stories about his own war reporting that don't withstand scrutiny—even claiming he acted heroically in a war zone that he apparently never set foot in.

When Williams was caught propagating an embellished tale about his war correspondent days in Iraq, memory experts gave him an olive branch. Williams may not be a liar, they reasoned; maybe he's a victim of false memory. Indeed, research has shown that though we may experience our memories as a truthful record of an event, they are not immutable. One recent study even suggests that “suggestive memory-retrieval techniques” can even lead us to recall committing crimes that never took place. Tara Parker-Pope explains how our memories can change in the New York Times:

Memories don’t live as single, complete events in one spot in the brain. Instead they exist as fragments of information, stored in different parts of our mind. Over time, as the memories are retrieved, or we see news footage about the event or have conversations with others, the story can change as the mind recombines these bits of information and mistakenly stores them as memories. This process essentially creates a new version of the event that, to the storyteller, feels like the truth.

O’Reilly, who claims to have been in a combat situation that was really better described as a protest, is just the latest public figure to distort war stories; NPR reported that public personalities like Hillary Clinton, Senate hopeful Richard Blumenthal, and Fox News' Geraldo Rivera have all embellished their own encounters with war torn regions.

Why all the lying about combat? It turns out, the negativity of war itself may breed false memories. A 2008 study in the journal Memory found that negative emotions can create a psychological paradox of sorts: they make events easier to remember over time, but increase our susceptibility to false memories. Within the study sample, false memories were nearly ubiquitous: Researchers were able to plant false information relating to negative events in 95 percent of the study's participants. Of that fault-prone subject group, each one reported an average of more than two false memories.

Even if both Williams’ and O’Reilly’s false recollections were born of the same faulty memory systems, they’ve responded to their respective scandals in very different ways. Williams both retracted and apologized for his mistaken account, while O’Reilly has basically doubled down on his faulty statements. And where NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, Fox News, it seems, is standing behind O’Reilly, perhaps because its viewers allow them to.