When Lying Is Foolish

How Brian Williams killed his career

Posted Feb 12, 2015

istock subscription, used with permission
Source: istock subscription, used with permission
istock by Getty images, used with permission
Source: istock by Getty images, used with permission

In his recent book “Love and Lies,” Clancy Martin (a professor who studies the philosophy of deception) made a distinction between good lies and bad lies. Good lies (such as a man telling his wife she looks good with an unflattering outfit or hairdo) will, according to the thrice-married philosopher, keep a relationship going, while bad lies (such as are told to facilitate philandering) will kill a relationship. But I prefer a different dichotomy: foolish lies versus non-foolish lies. A non-foolish lie has a low likelihood of being detected, is likely to facilitate some important interest of the liar’s, and is unlikely to harm the liar seriously if it does become exposed. A foolish lie has a significant potential for being exposed, does not materially advance an important interest (i.e., is unnecessary) and has high potential for harming the liar if it is exposed. The recent career suicide of NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams provides a sad example of the risks associated with telling foolish lies. After describing the lies briefly, I will use the four factor explanatory model of foolish action to try and understand why somehow as phenomenally successful as Mr. Williams would risk it all in such a blatantly dumb manner.

The Lie and Its Aftermath

Brian Williams was born in 1959, and has been anchor and managing news director of the ratings-leading NBC Nightly News broadcast since 2004. For this, he is highly paid, reportedly pulling down a salary of $10 million per year. As with other network news anchors, Mr. Williams occasionally goes on assignment to help to cover a major breaking story. Two early examples, both of which contributed to his current difficulties, are the War in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The problem is that Williams has a tendency to embellish his news coverage, and subsequent stories he tells in non-news venues (such as his frequent appearances on late-night talk shows), both to make the stories more dramatic and compelling, and to enhance his own role and importance in the events he is describing. Although both his Katrina and Iraq stories have long raised eyebrows, it was the Iraq coverage that landed him a six month unpaid suspension from his job. One lesson here seems to be that some lies, involving sacred matters such as a war where real heroes are dying, are more likely to get one in trouble than others.

The Katrina lies were not directly cited as reasons for the suspension, but they likely played a role in it, and apparently are still being investigated, with potential for making the suspension permanent. Here are three such examples from his coverage of Katrina (for which he and his network received many awards): (a) Williams told a story (never confirmed by others) of seeing a dead body float by outside his hotel in the French Quarter (which was the only relatively dry part of town); (b) he told a story not confirmed by others of seeing roving gangs of thugs roaming freely through his (heavily guarded) hotel; and (c) he gave a highly exaggerated account of rampant crimes, including rapes, that he saw or directly heard about in the Super Dome, where refugees from the storm were being housed.

The Iraq lie, which is the only one cited for his suspension (although NBC hinted that concerns about the New Orleans stories entered into the decision), involved a much repeated story that Williams told about being in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and forced to make an emergency landing in the desert. The real truth is that his helicopter was in a convoy of four helicopters, one of which (not his) was hit, with Mr. Williams not coming on the scene until 30 minutes later. Although his first reporting of the event was more or less truthful, over time it evolved into something blatantly untruthful, with such added embellishments as the detail that he actually looked down the barrel of the launcher before the grenade was fired. (The evolution of the stories can be accessed in a video link that can be found online).

What led to the undoing of Mr. Williams is that on his news broadcast of February 2, 2015, Mr. Williams showed a segment which featured a retired Army sergeant-major who he took to a New York Rangers hockey game where an announcer publicly honored the soldier for his role in leading a tank platoon that came to the rescue of Mr. Williams and others after their helicopter was shot down. A chief warrant officer (presumably a helicopter pilot, as that is a typical Army pilot rank) who knew the truth wrote a correcting comment on the Facebook page of NBC News, and that comment was noticed and reprinted in a story in the widely-disseminated military newspaper “Stars and Stripes ” (access at stripes.com) along with a weak admission and apology from Mr. Williams. That public acknowledgement of untruthfulness (which Williams did not share with his bosses at NBC News) attracted much public notice, and triggered an avalanche of criticism and ridicule directed at Williams and the network. Williams compounded the problem by giving a very weak on-air apology where, instead of saying “I lied,” he blamed it on “misremembering” and a resultant “conflating” of elements of truth and untruth. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he made it seem as if he (referring to himself as “managing editor”) was in charge of his own punishment, which he described as constituting a few days’ leave (in fact it was a move imposed on him by the network, but in typical ego-serving style, he made it seem to be his decision alone). The network quickly corrected that misimpression, by announcing that they were suspending the news anchor without pay for six months for what they considered to be egregious misconduct.

Several psychologists and researchers on lying have weighed in with their own commentary. Some of this commentary has hypothesized that Brian Williams actually came to believe the lie and, thus, was not as morally culpable as would be the case if he was consciously telling falsehoods. I have great respect for this line of research (by eminent scholars such as Elizabeth Loftus). However, while I think this dynamic may play a slight role (in that a much-repeated lie can become a core part of a liar’s story arsenal, and thus be called upon automatically when needed), my own view is that Brian Williams has long been a serial liar who does what such people do, which is to knowingly tell a lie when the truth does not sufficiently serve his needs. To understand why I hold this belief, an analysis using the four-factor foolishness model may be useful. (I shall only use the first three factors, as the last one "Affect/ State" is less relevant).  

Situational Factors Contributing to Brian Williams’ Lies

A curious thing about the US network news anchors, in contrast to UK where they are more accurately called “news readers” (implying correctly that they have little or no role in developing the stories they introduce on the air) is that they tend to become major celebrities, who are described by themselves and their bosses as serious and accomplished journalists. As such, they often are invited-- and encouraged by their bosses—to accept or pursue opportunities to promote and expand their brand, by going on talk shows, writing books, giving speeches, etc. Mr. Williams, unlike other news anchors (many of whom have print journalism backgrounds), has never written a book (although he has talked about his love of books on the Oprah Winfrey show) but he is a gifted raconteur with a talent for comic banter, as reflected on frequent appearances on Jimmy Fallon’s late night show, where they would slow jam the news together. As a result of his story-telling talent on the celebrity TV circuit, Mr. Williams had a very high Recognition Quotient (he is probably the only network news anchor who is known by name to virtually all American high school and college students, most of whom get their news from Jon Stewart--on whose show Williams was a frequent guest--rather than the NBC nightly news). The resulting fame of Mr. Williams undoubtedly contributed to the high ratings for his show, which made hundreds of millions of dollars for his network. The acclaim, and encouragement, that Mr. Williams received for his story-telling prowess was obviously reinforcing for him. This led him to make the fatal misstep of repeating and embellishing his Iraq story once again before 18,000 hockey fans, and a TV audience of millions, some of whom now have access to Facebook, a technological innovation that is a very good lie-correcting mechanism available to people who previously might not have known how to easily get their concerns known and addressed.                            

Cognitive Factors Contributing to Brian Williams’ Lies

To be a successful liar, one has to be able to: (a) know when you are lying, (b) calculate the risks of being exposed, (c) recognize when the consequence of exposure is so great as to not make lying worth it, and (d) keep current telling of the lie congruent with past versions. Doing this is not easy, which is one reason why truth telling is a better policy (it is easier to remember an event or action when it actually happened). As a general rule, lies should be used sparingly, and should align as closely as possible to the actual truth. In other words, embellishment is okay (or at least forgivable) when it is done infrequently, told before audiences unlikely to object, and does not stray too far from what actually happened. A smart person will figure out eventually that habitual lying comes with significant risks, and will come to scale back the lies, tell them more cautiously, or eliminate them altogether.

It is possible that Brian Williams is not as smart as everyone assumes he is. His academic history is the least distinguished, to put it mildly, of any major news anchor. He attended three colleges, staring with a community college, and he eventually dropped out after several years with a grand total of 18 accumulated college credits. He likely started climbing the TV news ladder by having a very pretty face, along with a very winning personality. I do not know the reasons for Williams’ dramatically weak academic history, but typically lack of ability to do college level work is a contributing factor. Even if that is not the case here, it is highly likely that Brian Williams is embarrassed by his profound absence of academic training, and consequently feels the need to compensate for that by broadcasting scoops not obtained by peers who are much more professionally qualified. Lying as a path to journalistic advancement is far from uncommon, as several scandals about made-up stories at newspapers and magazines in recent years have demonstrated.  

Non-foolishness (i.e., wisdom or common sense) involves recognizing, and giving sufficient weight, to relatively obvious risks. Telling lies about what Williams experienced first-hand when in New Orleans during Katrina was much easier to get away with, for the simple reason that no one could prove definitively what he did or did not see or hear, when looking outside his hotel room window or in other locations when not accompanied by others. Lying about an episode that occurred when you were on a helicopter with soldiers and colleagues (and not on the shot-down helicopter, where there also were soldiers) is much more difficult to permanently get away with, especially given that those soldiers likely had a strong motive to set the record straight (unlike his co-workers, who likely had a strong disinclination to confront their powerful boss). For Williams to think he could keep telling the made-up Iraq story forever without being called on it by one of many witnesses  to the truth is simply mind-boggling, a sign either of stupidity or psychopathology or both.

Personality Factors Contributing to Brian Williams’ Lies

I prefer to avoid using psychiatric labels such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but TV and movie stars typically have strong narcissistic tendencies (both inherent and encouraged by syncophants), and Williams likely is no exception. An interesting clue to Williams’ personality comes from the fact that when Jay Leno was in the process of finally stepping down as the host of NBC’s “Tonight” show, Brian Williams is reported to have thrown his hat in the ring and asked the higher-ups at the network (who immediately torpedoed the idea) to consider him for the job. Obviously, Williams thought of himself as a major talent as a comedian and entertainer, a role he had perfected through appearances on Saturday Night Live (where he was a guest host), the Daily Show, David Letterman and many similar venues. Telling entertaining stories (rather than real journalism) was his stock in trade, and it is not surprising that he used that talent at every opportunity.

Personality is a term that refers to behavioral traits, tendencies and needs that help to define a particular person. Telling lies about himself, for the purpose of making an entertaining story in which he appeared in a positive light, is a trait that certain helps to define Brian Williams. Such tendencies go way back, as when he exaggerated his role as a rescuer of puppies when he was a volunteer fire fighter during his high school years in New Jersey. In his stories, Mr. Williams often portrayed himself in a quasi- heroic light, or at least as involved in dangerous situations where he associated with others who were heroic, as was certainly the case with his Iraq story. I am generally opposed to psychoanalyzing public figures that I do not personally know, so I will resist speculating about where this need for reflected or real glory came from , but I have no doubt that he has such a need. Brian Williams has, apparently, many positive qualities, as reflected in numerous charitable acts and kindnesses he has been credited with performing over the years. Unfortunately, just being one of the most respected figures in TV journalism was not enough for him, and his need to continue telling tales about his fictitious brush with danger and heroism in Iraq led to his undoing.

Conclusion

All people do some lying, whether to spare someone’s feelings, avoid getting in trouble, puff up one’s own importance, or attain some desired goal. Lying is something that starts around age two or three, although understanding that one is lying starts around age four. Effective lying requires the ability to take the perspective of one’s listener (which begins to develop imperfectly around age seven), which is why young children are terrible liars (one thinks of the three-year old girl who when asked by her mother where the puddle at her feet came from answered “my shoes did it”). As we age, most of us learn that lying brings risks. Brian Williams apparently never fully learned that lesson, or at least well enough to keep him from destroying a first class career and forever sullying his reputation as an honorable, not to mention intelligent, man.

An interesting irony that has been much noted is that the same day that Brian Williams was suspended was also the day that Jon Stewart announced his impending retirement as host of “The Daily Show.” Ironically, until Brian Williams’ demise, he and Jon Stewart were consistently ranked as the two most trusted people in the news business, with the added twist that Mr. Stewart describes his as a “fake news show.” So here is a question, which I suspect has already been addressed to the people running Comedy Central (the network that owns The Daily Show): “who is better suited to replace a very famous fake newsman with comedic talents who tells news stories that are often true, than an equally famous former anchor with comedic talents who tells true news stories that sometimes are fake?"

Copyright Stephen Greenspan