Brian Williams Misremembers

Could America's most trusted news anchor be a pathological liar?

Posted Feb 13, 2015

Brian Williams, arguably the most trusted news anchor in America, no doubt is contemplating the ruination of his 20 year career and wondering how it all went so wrong. He's not the only one. The NBC Nightly News anchor was placed on a figurative pedestal, along with other highly reliable and esteemed newsmen, such as Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. When Williams reported it, we believed him.
This is in stark contrast to how we view our politicians. When a political leader opens his mouth, we immediately believe he's lying, so much so that politicians and truth have become an oxymoron. I'm going to go out on a limb and say most (all?) politicians in the media spotlight lie on a consistent basis. Americans not only accept it—we expect it. To be fair it’s not easy trying to please everyone from the base to the fringes without (more than) the occasional falsehood. The question is, why do we hold our news reporters to such a higher level of integrity than our politicians—or even ourselves?
The statistics don’t lie. As for Americans: 12 percent of adults admit to lying often; 60 percent lie at least once within a 10 minute conversation; 80 percent of women admit to telling half-truths; 31 percent of Americans lie on their resume; 32 percent lie to their doctor; 30 percent lie about their diet and exercise habits. For those who lie, statistically they lie 11 times a week. These, of course, are statistics from those who admit to lying, thus they almost certainly underestimate the incidence. After all if you are a true liar, why be honest and admit it, even anonymously?
The "Science of Honesty", a 10 week study, found that out of the 110 participants, half who were instructed to stop all lies showed an improved mental and physical health. They had fewer headaches, sore throats and weren't as tense or unhappy. The other half who continued their lying ways experienced no change regarding physical ailments. So lying is not good for us—right, whatever. The next time you get a cold stop lying and see if you feel better.
The point is that it's ingrained in our culture from athletes who use PEDs, to CEOs who put themselves first over shareholders; from reality shows that glorify the double cross, to politicians who will say whatever is needed to get elected. It’s ubiquitous, begging the question could we stop even if we wanted to? No matter, we still love to judge others.
Williams' firestorm began while paying tribute to some US Iraq War veterans on late-night television. He graphically and emphatically recalled an episode of being in a Chinook helicopter when it was shot down by an RPG. He told America that he and his television crew were stranded in the desert for two nights. It was a great story, both gripping and mesmerizing. The only problem was that the Chinooks that took the hits were filled with servicemen from the 159th Aviation Regiment. Williams and his camera crew were in another helicopter, traveling 30 minutes behind. The gripping and compelling account was a lie.
Williams had recalled this story a few times over the years and his television crew was in the helicopter with him, yet during all this time, no one from NBC came forward to contradict the episode. Finally the servicemen who were in the two hit helicopters came forward and challenged his veracity.
Initially, Mr. Williams said his memory was foggy, then that he "misremembered". Since then many of his claims are being questioned, from an account of being robbed at gunpoint in the late 1970s while selling Christmas trees to looking out the window of the New Orleans' Ritz-Carlton and seeing a body floating face down after Hurricane Katrina. The problem is that there was no flooding around the Ritz-Carlton.
These exaggerations, embellishments and lies have become a free-for-all on Twitter where users are taking turns poking fun at Williams' expense, making  #BrianWilliamsMisremembers the number one trending topic in the US.
NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay while they investigate the facts. NBC CEO Steve Burke shared these sentiments, "By his actions, Brian has jeopardized the trust millions of Americans place in NBC News. His actions are inexcusable and this suspension is severe and appropriate. Brian's life's work is delivering the news. I know Brian loves his country, NBC News and his colleagues. He deserves a second chance and we are rooting for him. Brian has shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone's trust."

What a difference a day makes. Overnight the investigation has brought more questions than answers. Story after story Williams shared, usually on late night television, is now being scrutinized and questioned.

Williams told of helping with preparations at Catholic University when Pope John Paul II visited the campus. The year was 1979. In 2002 he simply mentioned he was there. In 2004, during the commencement address at Catholic University, his highlight was shaking hands with the pope during his visit. In 2005, after the pope's death, the story became very colorful and detailed. In this version, Williams was a student. He began chatting with a Secret Service agent who told Williams all the minute details of the pontiff's itinerary. Williams positioned himself where the pope was going to walk. When the time came, Williams held out his hand and Pope John Paul II grabbed his hands in both of his, made the sign of the cross and blessed him. As of yet, it is unknown which version is true in this changing drama.
During the Iraq War, Williams claims to have flown with members of SEAL Team Six. They exchanged stories becoming quite chummy and later one of them sent him a souvenir from the daring commando raid against Osama bin Laden. Ex SEAL sniper Brandon Webb said, "My initial reaction is it sounds completely preposterous. There's a healthy dislike towards embedded journalists within the SEAL community….Those guys don’t take journalists with them on missions."  
We say we want just the facts, but are we lying to ourselves? We like action and compelling stories. We enjoy newsmen who go out in the field, putting themselves in harm's way while we remain glued to our seats listening to their fantastic stories. Williams delivered all of the above in a very compelling way. Only now we're learning some of these things never happened and though we are outraged, was the entertainment value any less at the time?
We know now that Williams was tired of anchoring NBC News and wanted to become a late-night comedian. He lobbied NBC executives to take over Jay Leno's position on The Tonight Show. The executives quickly let him know that was not going happen—he was a news anchor, not an entertainer. Williams became a frequent visitor on late night talk shows, and in fact, told his Iraq story first on the Late Show with David Letterman. John Stewart from The Daily Show quipped that Williams suffered from "Infotainment Confusion Syndrome", which "happens when the celebrity cortex gets its wires crossed with the medulla anchordalla."

With Williams’ stories being questioned and rebuked, things aren’t looking good for the suspended anchorman. The lies being told are so far-fetched and so detailed, it begs the question: Is Williams a pathological liar? In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd said NBC executives knew Williams had a problem but they weren't prepared to handle it. He always traveled with a news entourage and they clearly knew stories were being stretched or made up, but said nothing. Williams and his embellishments became the joke of the network's news division. Perhaps the first tenant of journalism 101 should be, reporting the news and being an entertainer are not the same.
Once trust is lost, it's difficult to get back. It's possible, but it takes work and time. Politicians have been caught in lies, but with well-placed and profuse apologies, careers have been saved. Can Williams do this? If it would have been just one instance, then absolutely. We love to beat our heroes up when they stumble, but will also embrace their reemergence if we feel enough penance has been paid. A few deep, sincere apologies coupled with some time off, and America would have given him a second chance. However, every new questionable story coming out sends him deeper into the abyss of irrelevance.
As for us, why do we accept (or even expect) lying from some and not others? Who could possibly forget Nixon's "I am not a crook", or Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" or Lance Armstrong’s constant doping denials. How do some survive with their career and reputation intact, while others crash and burn? Have we, as a country, just given up on integrity? No, that’s not it. But, until we stop accepting the double standard that some lies are okay, while others not so much, we will keep getting what we deserve from athletes, celebrities, politicians, CEOs and most importantly, each other.

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