Brian Williams vs. The Truth

NBC News anchor Brian Williams told actor Alec Baldwin in March 2013 that he was afraid he was going to die when a Chinook helicopter he was riding in during the Iraq War was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

But as Williams admitted on Wednesday, he was never in a Chinook that came under fire on March, 23, 2003. Instead, he was in a helicopter miles behind the one that was hit.

The interview with Baldwin, which was conducted on WNYC’s “Here’s the Thing,” is the first one to be uncovered following Williams’ retraction.

“I guess I do say to myself and to others — ‘I’ve got this’ — and I don’t know where that unbridled confidence comes from,” Williams told Baldwin, trying to describe where he gets his thirst for action and challenge. “And I’ve done some ridiculously stupid things under that banner, like being in a helicopter I had no business being in in Iraq with rounds coming into the airframe,” Williams said.

“Did you think you would die?” Baldwin asked. “Briefly, sure,” Williams said. “There have been probably more than …” he said, before trailing off. In his retraction and apology, Williams claimed that he inadvertently made up the story because he became confused after viewing so many different pictures from that day, causing him to suffer from a “fog of memory.”

That leaves open the question of whether his fear of death during the attack also developed amid a similar, legitimate state of confusion, or something else. [Reported at and 2/5/15]

To quote a reader and associate of mine: “Hey, it’s a mistake anyone could make.  Why, just last week I spent a day and a half thinking about nearly dying in a Kabul firefight before I realized that I’d just driven through the car wash.”


The question here isn’t why Williams did this. He’s a liar and a fraud, and we know that liars and frauds exist. They always have and always will.

The question is what kind of society do we now inhabit where Williams felt – perhaps plausibly – that he could probably get away with such a thing?

The thing to watch here is what happens — or does not happen — to Brian Williams’ career once this is no longer the story of the day on the Internet, Facebook and elsewhere.

If his career declines or even ends, then it will be an indication of something right and healthy in his field and at his network. I’m not holding my breath.

From a rational perspective, the truth matters. In the realm of news, the objective truth would seem to matter most of all. The truth is the first and foremost, because it refers to objective reality. To be out of touch with the truth or with facts is a weakness, or an error; to falsify events is a character flaw.

If you’re skeptical about the existence of objective reality, then quite naturally you’re not so concerned with the truth. And the less you become concerned with truth (rationally understood), then the less of a case there even is for considering such things as character, integrity and honesty.

I don’t know anything about Brian Williams personally other than what his actions have revealed him to be. But I do know we’re living in a society which rarely supports the idea of objective truth, at least not in areas pertaining to culture, society, politics, government or ethics. Whether it’s fudging figures to support environmentalist claims, denying that terrorism has anything to do with religion, or grade inflation at schools to make performance even out with respect to race – the list seems endless. The truth only matters when it works.

If Presidents can lie, why can’t a news anchor?  Just as Marcus Welby is dead in medicine, so is Walter Cronkite in news. It didn’t have to be so; it’s merely the result of caring less about the truth and integrity. The less we value or pay attention to these virtues, the less we’ll find them embodied in people we claim to admire or respect. You can’t have role models or heroes without rational standards for those role models or heroes to embody.

The worst example I know from recent times is Barack Obama. We presently have a President who tells people, “If you want your current health insurance, you can keep it,” when all the evidence points to precisely the opposite, and within twenty-four hours of his law passing millions lose their plans. Not so much as an apology or even an acknowledgement. This is the kind of deceit most people tolerate or take in stride, when it comes to life-or-death matters even more important than the news. Some who support Obama’s policies even rationalize such deceit in defense of what they think are morally superior health care policies. “The truth is whatever works.” Rather than what’s true. On what planet are any of us justified being surprised by Brian Williams in the context of such a cultural climate?

Philosophically (and psychologically) speaking, the truth matters. But in today’s cultural climate, particularly the areas associated with the news and politics, there is little negative incentive for lying. In fact, liars are not only not held accountable; they’re reelected and given more fame, celebrity, credibility and/or power than ever before.

Granted, if you’re rational and moral by a reasonable standard, you won’t want to lie about something as Brian Williams did. It wouldn’t even tempt you, because you don’t want to be admired or respected based on falsehoods. That’s because reality trumps people’s perceptions of you, and people’s perceptions of you are meaningless if based on falsehood.

But if you don’t adhere to any standard in particular, then what’s to be your incentive when the larger culture excuses or minimizes such deceit, even in our highest-level leaders? From the point-of-view of a liar, can you blame them for acting the way they do?

People forget that news anchors are paid professionals. In a sense, they’re merely actors, rather highly paid ones given the scope of the acting they’re asked to do.

If an anchorperson seems reasonable and truthful in conveying various news stories and news events to you, then he’s doing his job well. But if he begins to say things that are outright lies — from his own mouth, not merely from the biases or other errors of those writing his scripts — then, in a healthy work and cultural environment, he’d be roundly condemned if not immediately fired.

I’ll be surprised if any of that happens. How long before Williams writes his book, makes his excuses on various talk shows serving as (bad) psychotherapy sessions, and ultimately rises to a level of success he never would have seen without this scandal?

It might not play out this way; but if it does not, it will be unprecedented in contemporary society. We don’t live in a culture dominated by critical thinking. A critical thinker looks at the impossibly blatant evasions, self-refutations and contradictions in what Williams is claiming here. “Well, I recalled all those very specific details incorrectly because my mind was foggy from all the stress and wear and tear of time.”

But wait a minute. If you’re really stressed out when something happens, you don’t remember specific details like he claimed in the first place, do you? And he reportedly gave these same details to people back in 2005, or soon after the events allegedly happened in 2003. If the passage of 12 years can explain and excuse totally mis-remembering very specific details, then how do you explain mis-remembering them soon after the event actually happened? Or is there some other explanation?

These are the sorts of questions Brian Williams – a man all too representative of our rotten news and political institutions nowadays – is counting on people never to ask or consider. And he’s probably right.

In a lot of people’s minds, a reasonable sounding, well-groomed and smooth-talking person talking about significant matters cannot be a liar or a fraud. They fall for the fluff. They will simply refuse to believe it, because it’s easier to believe what your (unreasoning) senses seem to tell you than engage in a few moments of thought that reveal the actual objective truth: This man is just a plain old liar.


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