Brian Williams may never deliver the evening news on NBC or any other network again. If so, he’ll go down as a major figure in American journalism who “misremembered” himself into oblivion.
As the dust settles around Mr. Williams’s six month suspension from his position as chief news anchor for NBC’s nightly news broadcasts, many are wondering how a man who had secured the top job in his profession could have been so careless in reporting a personal anecdote. The answer really isn’t as hard to understand in terms of the human condition writ large. Lying, in all its variant forms, is really as common a trait as honesty, and far more universally practiced.
The kind of lying in which Mr. Williams engaged is even more common still. In the vernacular, it is referred to by a term synonymous with cattle droppings. The classic example of this form of prevarication is the telling by the fisherman of the fish he caught and then released. In truth, the little sea dweller might have been a healthy five pounder, but in the tale the proud fisherman recounts to friends later, it was a whopper, weighing at least forty pounds.
The fisherman might even expand his story into a veritable “Old Man and the Sea” saga, making himself out to be something of a hero in the process for battling long and hard to pull his catch aboard before then releasing the captured prey back into its natural home. His friends will be dutifully impressed, unless they have told a few such tales themselves, in which case they’ll smile and dismiss the story for what it is: B.S. (the family-friendly version of that cattle dropping term).
Williams’s report of his harrowing experience as a passenger in a helicopter that was struck by an RPG while on patrol in Iraq in 2003 was a classic fisherman’s tale. In fact, he had been in a helicopter that was a good 30 minutes behind the one that was hit, according to military personnel who recalled the incident. Williams’s claim that he “mis-remembered” the details of the incident is the kind of half-apology that never cuts it, but it’s not unusual. Hillary Clinton had a similar “excuse” when she misreported a similar incident she claimed to have experienced during her husband’s administration. That B.S. got her in trouble in the 2008 campaign and could be raised again if/when she runs next year (or later this year, as rumors suggest).
Both Williams and Ms. Clinton are guilty of classic B.S., the kind that in social circles is most often ignored or considered gauche at worst and hardly worth seriously diminishing one’s view of the prevaricator. Even people who are habitual bull s—tters usually escape social shunning, and many are still admired or at least appreciated for other qualities.
But in Mr. Williams’s case (and to a lesser extent Ms. Clinton’s) the B.S. raises unappealing questions about his trustworthiness in doing what is his basic job, to wit: accurately and honestly reporting the news. In an earlier time, the revered Walter Cronkite was studied microscopically by would-be critics to see if he ever allowed a false report to pass from his lips. Even his facial expressions were viewed with something approaching a compulsive degree of attention.
But Cronkite, an absolute paragon of trustworthiness, was always above reproach. Williams isn’t in his league, nor for that matter are most of the cable news anchors whose political biases often cause them to non-report parts of a story that create a false impression (the essence of a lie) of real events.
Ms. Clinton’s fate is less likely to be controlled by her false claim that she escaped enemy fire in Bosnia. First of all, she’s a politician, not a news anchor. Politicians are expected to prevaricate, which is not to excuse it, but what politician doesn’t “color the truth” in making campaign promises, if not in describing his or her accomplishments? The ones who get in trouble are those who go beyond typical campaign promising and résumé puffing to outright lying about illicit or criminal behavior. Bill Clinton got impeached for trying to artfully lie his way out of an illicit affair. Others have similarly crossed the line in trying to avoid the opprobrium of their mis- and malfeasances.
But lying in its many forms and for its many reasons is part of the human condition. It is recognized in the very first pages of the Bible, when Cain lies to God about his murder of his brother. The writers of that story assuredly understood the penchant for lying that even in the early days of civilized society was clearly rampant. And so it has been that throughout the existence of our species lying has been a commonly accepted, if oft condemned, part of our being. Rare are the individuals who, like the young George Washington, “cannot tell a lie.”
Think about the oath that witnesses take in court. Why must they swear to God or, more commonly now, under penalty of perjury, to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”? Isn’t the requirement of that oath based on the recognition that we will be inclined (or at least susceptible) to lie, if we don’t swear to be honest?
People lie. They lie for all kinds of reasons and in pursuit of all kinds of goals or for all kinds of purposes. People lie to self-aggrandize; they lie to get out of trouble; they lie to gain advantage in relationships; they lie to avoid expressing honest feelings; they lie to protect loved ones; they lie to accommodate the demands of bosses or supervisors; they lie hid their true identities; they lie, sometimes, just because it makes for a better conversation.
Lying in social circles, and even in political ones, is easy; it’s accepted, and, so long as the result of the lie isn’t directly harmful to anyone, it usually isn’t condemned.
The more interesting question, one that gets folks like Mr. Williams in real trouble, is whether telling the truth is equally as harmless.