Do Brian Williams’s Lies Matter? [Updated]

If you haven’t already heard about it–which seems unlikely–tonight’s big news story is the downfall of NBC’s Brian Williams. I am not sure I have ever seen Twitter more riled up over anything. The story, briefly, is this: for twelve years, Williams has told a story about flying into Iraq in a helicopter, on the eve of the Iraq war, that was hit and forced down by an RPG. I don’t know how many times he has told the story. People are digging through video archives and last I saw, the count was up to 13. He told it just last Friday at a New York Rangers game. Finally, the jig was up: some of the soldiers who were present and knew the facts started complaining.

There was, in fact, a helicopter that was struck by an RPG, but Williams wasn’t on it. His helicopter came in an hour later and landed without incident. Confronted with the facts, Williams recanted and apologized, chalking up his repeated error to the “fog of memory” after 12 years. No one is buying Williams’s apology, for several reasons: 1) it wasn’t 12 years later when he started telling the story, but shortly after the event; 2) whether your helicopter was or was not hit by an RPG isn’t the sort of thing you are likely to be confused about; and 3) even the apology wasn’t candid. Williams wrote that “I was indeed on the Chinook behind the bird that took the RPG,” but failed to note that his helicopter was “behind the bird that took the RPG” by an hour.

Williams is not just an anchor, he is the Managing Editor of NBC Nightly News. Given the magnitude of the firestorm in which he has been engulfed, and the lack of any apparent defense for his mendacity, it seems inevitable that he will resign or be fired by NBC. I don’t take any pleasure in this, and don’t have anything to add to the piling on that continues all around the internet. But there are significant questions here. Why did he do it, and does it tell us anything about Williams, NBC, or the news business generally?

As to why he did it, the answer seems obvious. Williams used the story to burnish his credentials as a reporter; as a war correspondent; as a man. Check out this Letterman appearance, where beginning at around 3:50 he tells the story in what John Nolte terms “sociopathic detail”:

Letterman gives the desired response: “That’s an incredible story, I have to look at you with more respect…” You’re a “war hero.” So Williams benefited in obvious ways from the fantasy that he retailed, over and over. He advanced his career by picking up reflected glory from America’s armed forces.

But I speculate that there was more to it than that. Often when he told the story, the context was Williams’s expression of admiration for the fighting men and women whom he got to know in Iraq. I don’t doubt that those expressions were genuine. Williams went to Iraq, spent time with U.S. soldiers, and found that they were more courageous, more dedicated, more skillful–in short, better men–than he. No problem with that: I feel the same way about a lot of my military friends, but it doesn’t cause me to make up stories to enhance my own purported valor.

Here, I think, may be the difference: while the soldiers whom Williams got to know in Iraq work for peanuts, relatively speaking, Williams makes enormous amounts of money. How much, I have no idea, but the numbers are no doubt available on the web. Hundreds of millions of dollars, I assume. In some sense, Williams is paid far more than he deserves. His modest skills as a glib speaker with a patrician mien and a midwestern accent have been, by any normal standard, massively over-rewarded.

I have no problem with that; no doubt Williams worked hard to get where he is. No one stumbles into success. Still, the kind of wealth that has been heaped upon Brian Williams gives rise to a phenomenon that has played much too large a part in our national life: liberal guilt. Again, this is pure speculation, but I suspect that Williams’s emotional need to portray himself (in his own mind, not just to outsiders) as someone who braved dangers, was shot at and nearly killed, was part of how he assuaged the guilt that came packaged with the hundreds of millions of dollars he has earned for doing, really, not much. (Note, too, how similar Williams’s story is to Hillary Clinton’s lie about “landing under sniper fire” in Bosnia.)

Ponder that for a moment: if my speculation is right, and liberal guilt caused Williams to make up a story about his own experience that he told, over and over for twelve years, until it finally brought him down, how else has it influenced him? How has liberal guilt shaped stories that he has written and delivered on the economy; on taxes; on wages; on corporate profits; on fiscal policy; on race relations; on affirmative action; and on many other subjects NBC News has addressed over the years? If Williams would make up bald-faced lies in one context to assuage his own liberal guilt, is it unreasonable to think that he and his NBC colleagues have passed off misrepresentations, misleading data, errors of omission and, yes, outright falsehoods in service of the liberal cause on other topics, for the same reason?

Jurors are sometimes called upon to determine the implications of a witness giving false testimony. In the state where I practice, the standard jury instruction says that if the jury decides a witness has testified falsely about one matter, they may reject his testimony on that issue but give it credibility on some or all other matters, or they may choose to reject his testimony altogether. In this case, Williams’s false testimony on the helicopter doesn’t mean we should reject everything he ever said on NBC Nightly news. But if I am right in diagnosing the source of Williams’s fatal lies, we should evaluate with great care everything that he and his colleagues tell us on subjects that are touched by liberal guilt–which in today’s world, are most of them.

UPDATE: This is the statement that Williams read on-air tonight:

After a groundfire incident in the desert during the Iraq war invasion, I made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago.

No: Williams has been telling the false story since shortly after the incident occurred. He told it for the last time, not the first, last week.

It did not take long to hear from some brave men and women in the air crews who were also in that desert.

Not since last Friday, but it took a decade or more since Williams first told the false story.

I want to apologize. I said I was traveling in an aircraft that was hit by [rocket-propelled grenade] fire. I was instead in a following aircraft. . . .

Again, Williams tries to mislead: his “following aircraft” landed an hour after the one that took the hit from the RPG.

This was a bungled attempt by me to thank one special veteran and, by extension, our brave military men and women, veterans everywhere, those who have served while I did not.

A bungled attempt last Friday evening at the Rangers game. Williams implies, once again, that this was the first time he has told the false story. But he is on video telling the same story at least 13 times since 2003.

Williams’s on-air apology, like the Facebook version, was disingenuous. I doubt that it will help him in the long term.

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