Why Brian Williams’ Lies Mean More Than You Think They Do

(NBC)

(NBC)

By now you know that anchor of the NBC evening newscast, a position once held by the likes of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley,1 has admitted fabricating stories about his experiences reporting from Iraq. He is under investigation by his network. When this sort of thing happens in print journalism, a writer’s stories are normally thoroughly vetted in the same way a public official’s (e.g., a police officer, a prosecutor) court testimony comes under review when he is found to have committed perjury. When Jayson Blair was found to have “fabricated” stories, all his work came under scrutiny. One of the more remarkable public lies in my lifetime was the wholesale appropriation by then Senator Biden of another man’s biography. You read that correctly. As a candidate for president, in 1987, Biden lifted not only a few lines from a speech by English Labour Politician Neil Kinnock, but indeed he portrayed Kinnock’s life as his own. That error in judgment forced him to retire from the race. As it turns out, that episode was part of a longer pattern of plagiarism. One might have thought that it would have cost him his political career. At the time I thought so but I was wrong. Biden went on to serve two terms as Vice President of the United States.  Hillary Clinton claimed to have come under sniper fire in Bosnia, in 1988, but according to Sharyl Atkisson, who was on the plane with the then First Lady, that story is false. Her husband, President Bill Clinton, looked directly into the camera and declared to the American people:

That lie nearly cost him his presidency as he became only the second president in the history of the republic to be impeached. Today, however, all seems to have been forgotten and he is said to be most popular Democrat politician in America. It may be that brazen presidential lies are becoming more common. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue looked into the camera more than two dozen times to say:

After the revelations from Mr. Gruber, we know now those claims were never true. Nevertheless, Biden, the Clintons, and our current president do not seem to be suffering for their public and rather obvious deviations from the truth. On the playground we used to say “winners never cheat and cheaters never win.” Apparently that axiom is also wrong.

Lies and plagiarisms are not isolated to journalists and politicians. If your pedestrian pastor has suddenly become remarkably eloquent, it may be that he has hired a service to write his sermons for him or worse, he may be plagiarizing someone else’s sermons. I have had conversations about a remarkable number of cases where pastors have been caught preaching sermons, which they have not written which they nevertheless represent to the congregation as their own. There are also remarkable cases of plagiarism by well-known religious writers who style themselves defenders of the moral law.

The point here is not to tut-tut about political, journalistic, and homiletical liars. The more profound question is why they get away with it. When President Nixon was found to have lied about his role in the Watergate affair, he faced an almost certainly successful impeachment. He resigned in disgrace in August, 1974. Americans were scandalized. Today people seem more or less unfazed by such lies. I keep asking myself, how is that, in an age when everything is on video and available on YouTube after a momentary search, a public figure such as president Obama or Brian Williams can look at America and tell lies? In his admission that he had lied, Williams presented himself as mystified, as if someone else had hijacked his person and lied and he was now conducting his own internal investigation.

Why is Williams mystified? How did Biden become confused about who he was? How did Clinton think that she had come under sniper fire? Yes, they are lies but more than that they signal that, in those cases, the increasingly fuzzy line between objective reality and subjective aspiration has disappeared. Hillary Clinton and Brian Williams aspired to be heroic figures instead of a first lady or a reporter.

The radical turn to the subjective and the loss of the sense that there is such a thing has objective reality, that things that you and I both know to be true in a sufficiently similar way, comes with a cost. The old Modern hubris provoked a reaction toward subjectivism and that subjectivism (“if it’s true for me, it’s true”) seems no longer to be haunted by the memory of a time when there was some idea of objective reality and truth. People, particularly millennials, talk about the coming zombie apocalypse as if it were a reality. People now regularly talk as if reality itself were just a construct, just a convention (an agreement between people) that may be changed or defied at will. Of course that’s nonsense. Try to fly (without a jetpack, parachute, or the like) and see what happens. You will crash and likely die. Is gravity a convention that a bunch of old mean people invented to ruin your good time? No, relative to us creatures gravity just is. It’s the nature of things. It’s true whether or not we want it to be true. Try to change it. Hold a vote. Get up an online petition at change.org and see if that makes a difference. I guarantee you that it will still require a certain amount of thrust for aircraft to fly before the petition and after. Nothing we or say can change gravity. That belongs to God.

Brian Williams isn’t the problem. He’s a symptom of a much deeper and fundamental problem.

NOTES

1. If you are a regular listener to the Heidelcast, you have heard Huntley and Brinkley’s sign-off.

2. The Anglican Church produced a Book of Homilies in the 16th century to aid poor preachers but those sermons were not presented to the congregation as original work.

19 comments

  1. I’m not beholden to either political party, but lies and deceit certainly aren’t unique to Democrats alone (though that is all who were mentioned in this blog post). There have been plenty of Republican politicians who have been less than truthful as well. We live in a society that desperately needs the grace of God.

    • Seriously ztalbott, you read this article and came up with Republicans are liars too. How about this truth, the Democrat national platform supports abortion, partial birth abortion and homosexual unions. Not exactly christian principles.

    • My point wasn’t to be partisan. Those were outstanding examples of overt lies or “mis-remembering.” Yes, Republicans have lied. Many people believe that the Bush administration lied about WMDs. Whether that is true is debatable—it is beyond doubt that Iraq had WMDs at some point since the gassed the Kurds. So then it comes down to definitions of WMDs and whether they really had intelligence or reasonably believed they had intelligence about WMDs. That’s not as clear as “If you like your health care” or “we were under sniper fire.” The point is that, because of the growing subjectivism of our age, it’s becoming harder for people distinguish between fantasy and reality. Maybe Williams really came to believe that he was in a helicopter hit by an RPG? I don’t know. What is important is that he apparently couldn’t tell the difference.

    • I came across this article as I was trying to point out to an ardent HRC supporter, how she had lied about being under sniper fire, and that you could actually see that on video! Hillary had done so, in attempt to overcome her waning poll numbers against, then, Senator Obama, thinking that it would boost her credibility of getting a 3am call of impending doom. It is baffling, at best, that even with the ability to watch someone lying, people refuse to acknowledge it. Your article (well written, & outstanding) addresses much more than I could have hoped for, regarding getting away with the lies, from officials, who should be held to a higher standard. Over the years I have seen a plethora of politicians lie when the truth would have sounded better, but now with the ability to actually provide visual/audio proof, you would think that would be the defining thing. This HRC supporter, never even remotely acknowledged this when I explained there is proof of this lie, instead, wanted to know why I would throw daggers at HRC. One more thing, I was wondering how was that a lie in your reference to President Obama? Only thing worse than the lying, is being accused falsely. Maybe I’m in denial.

  2. Proverbs 23:23 “Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding” (ESV).

  3. One of the real gems along these lines belongs to the infamous ’99 presidential candidate, Al Gore, who claimed, regarding the very media over which we are now communicating (in an interview):

    “… During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system …”

    It’s known as “chutzpah,” a label that was once regarded as a negative quality in the original Hebrew, but took on a new meaning in the last quarter of the 20th Century, a positive quality meaning that one had the fortitude to proceed in a particular direction, regardless of what anyone in the public realm might think.

    • Whether chutzpah is admirable or not is open to question. In Hebrew, chutzpah (חֻצְפָּה) means “cheek” or “insolence”. Also, in the common Yiddish usage (but you’re hearing this from a sexegenarian speaking of a language which, outside of Chasidic circles, is dying) is used to describe the sort of person who brutally murders his parents and then pleads for the court’s mercy on the grounds that he is an orphan.

  4. Peter – exactly! And how is this Yiddish definition different from something like the “aw shucks” plea of a Bernie Ebbers type who simply claimed that he had no idea what the underlings he’d hired to keep his company’s books were doing (the accounting records which, of course, he himself had personally demanded that they falsify)?

  5. It all boils down to who’s lying and why. Biden or Bryan, not so much. Hillary – feminism, Gruber – socialized healthcare, MLK – racism, Kinsey – promiscuity etc. etc. In short, the lying either affirms the goals and demigods behind the blanket smear of “racistsexisthomophobeantisemiteradical” or it doesn’t.

  6. Christian Liars?
    This morning I was with a few dozen Christians who sang the following words:

    “Refiner’s fire, my heart’s one desire
    is to be holy, set apart for you, Lord.
    I choose to be holy,
    set apart for you, my master,
    ready to do your will.”

    I couldn’t sing those words. My heart has more than one desire, and many of these I don’t want to tell anyone about.

    Did those others really choose to be holy?

    Are they ready to do His will?

    Most were quite happy to sing these words. I groan inwardly for the not-yet!

  7. Dr. Clark –

    Why would you use the excuses that Bush/Cheney have abandoned in defending the second Iraq war? I think there is a lot of benefit to listening to this little bit of Tom Woods from Nullify Now in Los Angeles. He talks about justifying the first Iraq war after the administration had abandoned those justifications

    • Tyler,

      I understand that people (from a range of political opinions) believe that the Bush Admin lied to get us into Iraq. It may be but I’ve not had great sympathy with it. I remember when Iraq gassed thousands of Kurds in 1988. That happened. That gas was a chemical weapon. Iraq had chemical weapons. Older WMDs were found.

      I’m listening to the video. Do governments lie? Yes. Was the Iraq war a mistake? I don’t know. Did the GHWB admin get us ginned up via war fever? Yes. Is it the case that everyone who disagrees with me is a “raging sociopath” as the speaker says? No. That’s a little over the top.

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