Haven’t we all been having loads of fun over the shaming of NBC News anchor Brian Williams? Pick your favorite meme: We’ve seen him reporting from the moon, riding shotgun with OJ, crossing the Delaware with Washington, and with his head superimposed on Adam’s on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. There may be a million of them out there in Twitterland — proof, not that our great nation values integrity, but that we excel in Photoshop and Schadenfreude.
What does Williams’ multi-storied “misremembering” and the social media maelstrom into which he’s been thrown say about him, about journalism and about us? Can some good come from his shame … a cautionary tale for the rest of us, perhaps some self-examination and a review of pertinent passages of the Catechism, which has lots to say about truth and journalism?
Why the big deal? It’s not like Williams is the first journalist or public figure to have lied to Americans. A few months ago, Jonathan Gruber, MIT professor and Obamacare “architect,” was caught freely and repeatedly admitting some of the lies surrounding the enactment of Obamacare to chuckling audiences. Congress and the American people were less amused. Former President Bill Clinton was impeached for having perjured himself before a grand jury over l’affaire Lewinsky. Mrs. Clinton told a whopper about deplaning under sniper fire at a Bosnian airport. During a presidential campaign, Vice President Joe Biden spun a whole web of lies concerning his undergraduate and law school grades, degrees and plagiarism. The “New York Times” called out Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal over his fibs about having served in Vietnam. “Swiftboating” entered our vocabulary thanks to the Vietnam service-related lies of current Secretary of State John Kerry when scores of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth came forward to debunk Kerry’s heroic version of his brief service. Well, really, one could go on all day. Lies to cover up misdeeds or puff up one’s bio to claim courage under enemy fire have not adversely impacted the fortunes of these individuals, although they’ve doubtless contributed to the cynicism with which many view government.
It hardly seems fair that Williams should suffer so much mockery over a pathetic little story of danger he actually didn’t have to face down while briefly covering the Iraq war. I think Americans came to admire gutsy journalists who “embedded” or flew into strife-torn areas of the world, risking death to report events firsthand. Envy and self-puffery usually harm oneself more than others. And now, NBC execs are digging through other “too good to be true” onsite reporting by Williams, such as seeing dead bodies float by his gang-invaded 5-star hotel in New Orleans’ Latin Quarter, an area that had been spared the brunt of Hurricane Katrina with only a foot of water, according to some reports. Having lost the trust of the public that he’s delivering the whole truth to them, he’s been suspended for six months.
The massive social media mockery of Williams could lead one to think that, suddenly and unexpectedly, Truth Matters to the public. It didn’t seem to matter a whole lot to NBC executives who reportedly knew of his toying with the truth twelve years ago. Williams has been a revenue-generator because he’s been a likeable and trusted anchor. One doesn’t kill a golden goose when silence and damage control are still working. So one might say shame on them for their too-flexible journalistic standards.
Did their silence cause harm to NBC’s shareholders, including many pension funds, that may see the value of their holdings plummet along with the ratings of NBC’s "Nightly News"? Don’t investors have a right to expect honesty from management? Corporations are legally obligated to inform shareholders and the public about significant potential liabilities. Having been aware that the public face of the NBC News team is known by many people (members of the military and his own news crew) to have indulged in self-referential and untrue "reporting," did NBC executives conceal their knowledge for the sake of the bottom line while putting investors’ holdings at risk?
Truth mattered to the investors, but I think a lot of people today have no problem with "lying liars" as long as the liars are advancing an agenda with which one agrees (see Jonathan Gruber defending the lies necessary to get Obamacare passed). We are quick, however, to castigate people who have told lies to serve an agenda we oppose, whether it’s political, social, economic or moral.