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Brian Williams and the unforgivable lie

With the attention of the United States firmly affixed to the legend of Chris Kyle and the Clint Eastwood film showcasing his life, it should come as no surprise that other celebrities feel the sudden compulsion to make people pay attention to them (see Michael Moore and Seth Rogan, to start). After all, their bread and butter is the attention the public pays to them. Their paychecks are directly linked to how much star power—positive or negative reputation is irrelevent—they possess.

So when Brian Williams' sudden recitation of his favorite war story about being shot down by an RPG while in an Army Chinook around the start of the war in Iraq was exposed as a lie, I was flabbergasted. No, wait, that's not the word I was looking for. Totally unsurprised, maybe. Here's why.

Brian Williams long ago conflated his role as a journalist with that of being a celebrity. The problem is, journalists build a reputation on integrity while celebrities generally build theirs on ignominious behavior. They're totally at odds with one another. You can't be both, at least not very well. Williams saw an opportunity with the surge of attention given to Chris Kyle and by extension, our soldiers and our role in Iraq and Afghanistan, to play up his own battlefield experiences, to leverage them for his share of the glory and spotlight. The problem was, those experiences—the honest ones—were pretty boring.

Like any prominent journalist in a warzone, it's preferable to just pop in to the ugly places, get a quick sound byte and some glamour shots, make people think you're right in the heart of the battle while standing on a rooftop 20 miles from the action, then hightail it back to safety. But people don't want to hear about that. They want danger. They want a vicarious thrill.

So Brian Williams did what desperate people do: He lied. Took an almost-impressive story and built it up until it was something totally unrecognizable and completely fictional. If he were only a celebrity, that would be perfectly ordinary behavior.

The problem is that pesky journalist title. If Brian Williams wants to lay claim to being a member of the fourth estate, he's committed an absolutely unforgivable sin with this latest blunder. He lied. He violated a sacred trust, even if it was for an otherwise innocuous purpose where no one really got hurt. But he did do damage to our industry. A journalist's integrity is all he or she has. Mistakes are one thing. Errors are inevitable. But intentional falsehoods are unforgivable. How can we be expected to be a trustworthy, authoritative voice for viewers and readers if we've proven ourselves vain prevaricators?

Now, of course we know the outcome of this fiasco. People will forget. People will forgive Brian Williams because they find his dulcet tones reassuring when he reads the news. He's got a trustworthy face. He doesn't know what came over him. It was just a simple mistake. He'll go on doing what he does, unpunished.

But maybe it's time we held journalists accountable on a personal level. This wasn't NBC's fault. This was Williams' and his alone. If he wants to be a storyteller, maybe he should just write novels instead of reporting the news.

(Featured image courtesy of

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