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To paraphrase Shakespeare, uneasy lies the head that misremembers.
Initially, I was a bit put out when I heard that one of my favorite newscasters and celebrity journalists, Brian Williams, was caught in a lie of what appears to be self-aggrandizing hubris. Mr. Williams stated that in 2003, during the Iraq War, he was aboard a helicopter that was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade and forced down. After public outcry, part of his apology included not being able to tell “…what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another…”
I thought how could he but then I thought about it and said why not; after all Mr. Williams is human.
Brian Williams said that he misremembered what happened to him that fateful day in Iraq, while others call what he did a blatant lie, which is defined as “something intended or serving to convey a false impression.” Misremembered sounds like something a five-year-old would say when caught in the proverbial cookie jar, but the dictionary actually acknowledges that misremembering is definitely a thing; defined as “to fail to remember, forget; to remember incorrectly.”
University Of Massachusetts Psychologist Robert Feldman states: “We use lies to grease the wheels of social discourse. It’s socially useful to tell lies. It’s tied in with self-esteem. We find that as soon as people feel that their self-esteem is threatened, they immediately begin to lie at higher levels.”
Virtually every day people tell a varying degree of lies from the innocuous no those jeans do not make your butt look big and oh what a beautiful baby to the mid-size lies of I’m late because my alarm didn’t go off and I can’t go to <fill in the blank> because I have to take my mom to evening bible study to big daddy lies like I did not sleep with that woman; I am not a crook; and the helicopter I was on got hit and was forced to land.
Regarding why people lie, Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta offered to LiveScience magazine: “We want to both look good when we are in the company of others (especially people we care about), and we want to protect our self-worth.”
When caught on the same web used to spin a fictitious tale there is a vast amount of courage needed to confront and tell the truth, privately and even more so publicly. (Especially in today’s technological society, where not only misrememberances are scrutinized and demand accountability; but so are ubiquitous shares of sophomoric indiscretions and misunderstood texts and tweets.)
I understand Mr. Williams placing himself on a professional time-out, stating: “In the midst of a career spent covering and consuming news, it has become painfully apparent to me that I am presently too much a part of the news, due to my actions…” and as a result his colleague, Lester Holt, will (until further notice) take his place. That is noble. Let us not forget that he did not belabor or delay owning the fact that he incorrectly shared his story; instead he immediately apologized and recanted his version of the events.
What I do not understand is why when someone says, yes, I misremembered (a.k.a. lied) that immediately thereafter every word utter or experienced shared is now open for harsh scrutiny?
Currently, Mr. Williams’ professional veracity is being called into question by NBC President Deborah Turness, who announced an in-house investigation with “…a team dedicated to gathering the facts to help us make sense of all that has transpired…” regarding certain alleged situations involving Mr. Williams’ journalistic memory, e.g. the broadcasting of 2005 Hurricane Katrina (where he allegedly reported seeing a dead body float past his Ritz-Carlton hotel room and in addition, allegedly witnessing a man commit suicide inside the New Orleans Super Dome) and possibly other news stories; including an anecdote shared by Mr. Williams regarding being robbed at gunpoint while working at a New Jersey Christmas Tree lot in the 1970’s to which Mr. Williams stated about the incident, “That wasn’t a bad job, until a guy came up and stuck a .38-caliber pistol in my face and made me hand over all the money. Merry Christmas, right? Of course, I suddenly appreciated the other jobs I thought I hated.”
This allegedly happened FOUR decades ago.
To go back over forty years to check the validity of a story that occurred in a church parking lot years prior to his first broadcasting job (in 1981) is going above and beyond gathering facts to help make sense of all that has transpired.
Brian Williams did not perpetrate a lie made up of A Million Little Pieces or accept a Pulitzer Prize for Cooke-ing up a story about an eight-year-old heroin addict; or for over half a decade repeatedly disavow any knowledge of steroidal use to Live Strong; instead, he told a really bad rendition of an actual event to paint himself as one of America’s heroes, possibly to boost his self-esteem and/or broadcast ratings. We will never know the true reason behind the egregious faux pas but maybe it is as Ms. Argo surmises: “…people appear to be short-term focused when they decide to deceive someone…” to “…save self-image and self-worth [right] now, but later on if the deceived finds out it can have long-term consequences…”
Mr. Williams’ fantastical retelling might be the only embellishment in a celebrated journalistic career and the benefit of the doubt might be in order, instead of rushing to the assertion that he has possibly lied every single day since birth and can never be trusted. Author Al David sagely states: “One lie has the power to tarnish a thousand truths.”
Now caught and labeled, like others before him, Mr. Williams is infamous with a potentially devastating character flaw revealed, and with every day that passes that psychological mark becomes an indelible societal brand that will become next to impossible for him to live down or overcome.
Yes, Brian Williams admitted he lied about his memory of what happened that fateful day during the 2003 Iraq War. And yes, maybe, an investigation of Mr. Williams’ coverage of Hurricane Katrina is “necessary” and/or journalistic protocol. But it is not okay to demonize a man’s entire professional life for being human; or as Feldman says: “…trying not so much to impress other people but to maintain a view of ourselves that is consistent with the way they would like us to be…”
Before this story broke, research firm Omnicom’s The Marketing Arm Celebrity Index rates Brian Williams as the 23rd most trusted person in the United States, a distinction shared with actor Denzel Washington, businessman Warren Buffett, and fellow news anchor, Robin Roberts. While this is only impressive as long as the others listed do not self-sabotage or accidentally trip and fall off their respective pedestals, the real truth of the matter may not be favored popularity list placement or that a popular news anchor apologized for lying; but that television news is struggling to remain relevant and as such cannot afford any blemishes on an already fading medium.
Per Pew Research Center for the People and the Press: “…it’s not surprising that more people under 25 get news from digital (60 percent) than “traditional” sources such as TV, radio, and print (43 percent)…;” and “…21 percent aged 18-29 cited “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live” as a place where they regularly learned presidential campaign news…” Social Media, bloggers, and other Internet entities are proving that millions of people do not obtain their news from television, so is it possible that Williams-gate is a possible blessing in disguise for the journalist in question?
While the egregious faux pas perpetrated by Brian Williams does merit professional consequence, there might be a throwing out of the newscaster with the bath water in hopes of assuaging overall unpopular brand imaging; as it is common knowledge that the NBC Network is a beleaguered news brand that is still attempting to overcome the recent reported firing of the Today Show news head after only ten-weeks in the position; and the miscalculated demoting of journalist Ann Curry from the Today Show roster; not to mention the vitriolic public outrage over in-house physician Dr. Nancy Snyderman’s refusal to maintain self-imposed Ebola quarantine.
Only time will tell if the news anchor is a serial liar or a one-time misrememberist. If determined to be the former, termination is inevitable; but if internal fact-finding proves the latter, possibly a suspension or demotion might occur allowing the formerly beloved reporter to rebuild viewer confidence.
However the public ultimately decides and whatever the network investigation discovers, hopefully the future reveal will be the Truth to set Brian Williams free.
CeeJaye @CeeJayeWrites is a freelance writer and self-proclaimed Literary Chameleon. Her work includes nearly four years as a columnist for London’s LIVE Magazine, penning an episodic series for N.Y. Cable Access Television, and co-authoring “Racism and Real Life” for academic journal, The Radical Teacher. Living abroad heightened Cee Jaye’s appreciation for food, art, and travel. Currently, she resides in Southern California with her family and has completed her first novel.