“I hear that Brian Williams was an original cast member of Saturday Night Live. That doesn’t sound right. I don’t know if that’s true.”
— Jerry Seinfeld
Ten-million-dollar baby and NBC newsman Brian Williams is guilty. He knows better than to insert himself right smack dab in the middle of the news he’s witnessed or reported directly, and because he did, he resorted to lying about them and himself.
Liars and narcissists do this: They want to co-star in the factual matters when the facts do not need or normally include them. Further, liars like Williams get carried away, assuming there won’t be anyone alive to later contradict them or to contest their wild tales.
Who would’ve known the New Orleans’ health inspector would raise his brow to Williams’ claims he saw a dead body float down the street past his hotel room in the French Quarter a decade after Hurricane Katrina?
Turns out even a seemingly solitary lie — a lie fabricated with nary a single soul around at the time the story behind the lie is born — can have at least one witness.
That’s why it’s best not to lie.
We never know who was there — looking, knowing, witnessing — too.
Could we more easily forgive Williams if he’d been caught in just one fantastic tale?
The problem now becomes whether he is pathological in these kinds of lies: the lies told to other interviewers (the Hurricane Katrina lie) or the lies he tells as footnotes to feature stories on his own broadcast (the Army helicopter he claimed took on enemy fire while he was aboard).
Williams’ fate is now up to the heads of the NBC news division and the head of the network. They’ll decide whether to spend time, manpower hours and money sifting through Williams’ years of pre-anchor stories and vetting them for veracity.
This is what lies do.
They eat at the foundation, the future and past of the liar’s character.
Lies are termites whose damage may not be immediately seen and felt, but that damage will ultimately tear the liar’s house asunder.
As Williams waits out his six-month unpaid suspension (to the tune of a $5 million loss in pay) under self-imposed house arrest, there’s been a lot of white noise about trust, forgiveness and comebacks.
Here, unscientifically, are some folks we’ve forgiven and some we have not and never will:
O.J. Simpson (suspected murderer); President Bill Clinton (busted philanderer); President George W. Bush (liar: weapons of mass destruction); Lance Armstrong (doper who said he’d do it again); Alex Rodriguez (alleged doper); Milli Vanilli (Grammy scammers — you know it’s true); Adolf Hitler (hatemongering, racist warlord); Paula Deen (alleged racist cook); Jayson Blair (fraudulent, plagiarizing journalist); James Frey (“writer” who fabricated his own memoir); Rick Bragg (“journalist” who used uncredited work of an unpaid intern); Bill Cosby (fallen “father” and alleged serial sexual deviant); Sarah Palin (claimed to see Russia from her house); President Richard M. Nixon (one word: Watergate); and an incalculable number of black rappers who claim to be drug-slinging thugs when they’re really college-educated, middle-class African Americans (please see: 2 Chainz).
I am torn and I do not know how to feel about Brian Williams and the notion of welcoming him back into my bedroom every evening at 6:30 because he was my go-to guy for national news.
His copy was whip-smart, brief without being exclusionary and even self-deprecating in that way that does not signal self-loathing but, rather, winked knowingly at viewers.
I am trying not to be too judgmental because I have lied in my life — never in a story or a column and never in the retelling of a story or a column off the page to friends or colleagues. That’s just bad form because all facts can be checked and the world is surprisingly small.
People talk and casual lies can be as casually revealed.
Though I do not hold a journalism degree, I do hold close a tremendous amount of personal and journalistic ethics.
My credo? If you’re a liar in your personal life you’re probably going to lie as a writer and a journalist. It’s what I tell my students and it’s what I tell myself nearly every day of my life.
I’d looove to say I saw the limbless body of an unidentified female corpse that washed up on the banks of the Little Miami in Hamilton when I was a reporter there, but that wasn’t my beat; that was Karen Minelli’s beat and she probably saw that corpse.
That I didn’t doesn’t make me any less grizzled, hardened or experienced or even empathetic to the plights of victims and their families.
I’d give my right arm to say I was front row and center to the chaos during the nascent hours of the April 2001 riots after Stephen Roach shot and killed Timothy Thomas, but I wasn’t.
I watched the city north of Central Parkway belch black plumes of smoke and I heard downtown go mute from the seventh floor windows of CityBeat when it was housed in the old Provident Bank building. And when I thought it was safe I sprinted to my car parked somewhere near Walnut and Ninth streets.
I drove away from the trouble to get home, but that neither made me any less incensed to racially motivated excessive police force, nor did it make me any less believable as a columnist when I did fall in line during the subsequent March for Justice.
I remain perplexed why Brian Williams felt it necessary to make stories and scenarios appear more dramatic — and less true — than they were organically.
Didn’t he know we’d watch him just the same?
Didn’t he know we’d still believe whatever he read to us every night at 6:30?
It really is enough merely to go to war or to a hurricane without all the self-aggrandizement.
Will I forgive Brian Williams?
I’d be lying if I said I don’t want to.
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]at.com