Brian Williams’ six-month exile without pay from NBC Nightly News for telling a very public untruth should come as no surprise to those who follow the media. He is merely the latest in a long line of media practitioners who have deceived the public.
Recent journalism history is rife with tales of journalists who lied. Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for a fabricated story about an 8-year-old heroin addict. New York Times reporter Jayson Blair was fired after plagiarizing and inventing information. The New Republic magazine writer Stephen Glass started by making up quotes and details before graduating to entire fictitious stories. Five years after his deceptions were exposed, Glass admitted that his life “was one very long process of lying and lying again, to figure out how to cover up those other lies.”
Lying is a tempting trap Satan sets out for all of us, hoping to lead us into consequences that will ultimately pry us apart from God. In her book Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life, philosopher Sissela Bok states that “lies do have negative consequences for liars, dupes, all those affected, and for the social trust.” It is that public trust Williams stands accused of violating, according to NBC News chief executive Steve Burke, who added, “Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”
As anchor and managing editor, Williams told his Nightly News audience that during the Iraq War in 2003, he was in a helicopter that was hit by a grenade. Some veterans present during the flight disputed Williams’ recollection, noting that it was a different helicopter that was hit, not the one in which Williams was riding.
It seems difficult to understand how Williams thought he would escape exposure for his untruth (although according to news reports he told a similar story on the Late Show with David Letterman two years ago, without anyone challenging the tale). Eventually the deception is bound to be exposed, especially for public figures like Williams. Philosopher Bok noted that liars usually fail to foresee the consequences of their false statements, focusing instead on how the deceit will help them NOW.
Often, the NOW need takes the form of a persistent human need to be loved, honored and valued by others. We all fall prey to this, but perhaps public figures have the greatest need for adoration. As a sports journalist, I once interviewed a prominent college baseball coach who told me he played major league baseball for the St. Louis Browns (precursor to the Baltimore Orioles), and one year was the starting center fielder on Opening Day. It was easy to research his claim, which proved false. He never rose higher than the low minor leagues. When I confronted the coach with evidence of his deceit, it was obvious he had not considered the consequences of his lie. He claimed to “misremember” his own playing career. Evidently he confused playing in Muskogee and Paducah with playing major league baseball in St. Louis.
Just like the baseball coach, Williams claimed to “misremember” the details, and this may be so. Once the mind seizes upon a deceit, the subconscious can embroider it until it becomes “real” to the tale-teller. The memory is a faulty instrument, susceptible to will, wishes, empathy and ambition.
This is perhaps too charitable a view of Williams’ transgression, but in all candor, everyone exaggerates stories — sometimes for dramatic effect, or self-aggrandizement, or to make our lives seem more interesting than they truly are. However, it is a short mental stroll from exaggerating to lying. It can start small — cheating on a test, inflating tax deductions, or “misremembering” a story. Often, there are consequences, including lost trust. Trust, once it is violated, is hard to regain.
Conscious of my own shortcomings, I let the baseball coach off the hook and did not expose his deceit. I felt that he “learned his lesson” about repeating this falsehood, just as the American public expects Williams to learn his lesson about his war story.
Williams will now seek quiet obscurity for six months and wait for the storm to blow over. It always does. As our mass media set the public’s agenda by telling us what we need to think about, the Brian Williams story will gradually be forgotten, just as have the attention-grabbing scandals of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass.
Six months from now, Williams will poke his head out and see if a critical mass of accusers remain to condemn him. If not, he will quietly return to work — a little at first, then perhaps more later, depending on the public’s level of condemnation. Some have survived public humiliation and returned to work, like sportscaster Marv Albert after going on trial for forcible sodomy. Others have been less fortunate, like Mel Gibson, whose film career is moribund after he made several recorded rants laced with profanity and anti-Semitism.
For Williams, I think the condemnation six months hence will be minimal, and all will eventually be (mostly) forgotten for Williams and many of the other chastised individuals who return to the limelight they so desperately crave. Ultimately, we all take our cues from the mass media, who let us know when it is acceptable to forgive our fallen idols. Whether they “learned a lesson” by violating the public trust is debatable. But beyond the court of public opinion and above the Supreme Court reposes the ultimate Seat of Judgment, where all our actions and words are evaluated on ethical and moral grounds. Keeping those consequences in mind, and sacrificing fleeting human accolades, may be the best policy of all.