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What We Can Learn from Brian Williams, his Million Snarky Critics and the Catechism



Susan E. Wills - published on 02/11/15

Have we forgotten the virtues of humility and charity in our rush to mock him?

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.

As Christians we know that Satan is the "father of lies" and that, in Jesus, "the whole of God’s truth has been made manifest. … He is the Truth" (Catechism, 2466).  All men and women are "obliged to honor and bear witness to" the truth. (Catechism, 2467)

One need not be religious, however, to recognize that truthfulness is essential in personal human relationships and in society. Thomas Aquinas put it plainly: ‘Men could not live with one another if there were not mutual confidence that they were being truthful to one another” (Catechism, 2469).

Why is that? Humans are equal in dignity. We make decisions and act in reliance both on what we perceive and what we learn from others. When we are lied to, we are likely to make decisions that may be harmful to ourselves and to others. Fraud and misrepresentation are crimes that acknowledge the importance of humans being truthful with one another. Lies violate both the justice and the charity that is due others. (Catechism, 2485). The Catechism explains it in these words:

Since it violates the virtue of truthfulness, a lie does real violence to another. It affects his ability to know, which is a condition of every judgment and decision. It contains the seed of discord and all consequent evils. Lying is destructive of society; it undermines trust among men and tears apart the fabric of social relationships (Catechism, 2486).

Sections 2493 – 2499 of the Catechism address truth in the context of social communications media. "The information provided by the media is at the service of the common good. Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice, and solidarity" (Catechism, 2494). And it has this to say about the duty of journalists:

By the very nature of their profession, journalists have an obligation to serve the truth and not offend against charity in disseminating information.They should strive to respect, with equal care, the nature of the facts and the limits of critical judgment concerning individuals (Catechism, 2497).

The sorrows of Brian Williams have damaged his name, his family, his employer and NBC shareholders. Thanks to a culture with more wit than kindness, he has become a laughing-stock. That some good may come out of this situation, I offer a few suggestions:

Could we all try to think of him as a human being who made a mistake — like all the rest of us — and who now is paying a heavy price for his vanity? It wouldn’t kill us to pray for him.

Recall the times when you were not entirely truthful and thank God that you’re not the butt of a million jokes on account of your lapse.

If you are responsible for encouraging the growth of virtue in young people, as a parent, pastor or teacher, refer to his woes to stress the importance of telling the truth, the consequences of lying and, especially, the requirement of charity and humility with respect to others’ failures.

Lastly, take 20 minutes to read sections
2464 to 2503 of the Catechism, especially the parts about detraction, an almost universal sin against our neighbor and our God.

Susan Wills
 is a senior writer for Aleteia’s English language edition.

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