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.2 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.
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.