The Only Lies That Mattered: Brian Williams and What We Fact Check Now

So Brian Williams is about to lose his job. Not, unfortunately, for being an overpaid and mostly decorative hairdo who complains about the Internet like he’s my grandpa’s age, but for making up/misremembering/embellishing a story that led to the deaths of absolutely nobody and changed the course of the war he told the story about not one little bit.

And no, for you in the cheap seats, I don’t think lying is nothing.

I think lying is everything.

And I think it’s very interesting, which liars we punish and which liars we forgive (or at least forget).

Judith Miller is writing a book about her lies. Unless I’ve missed it in that story, it will not be a one-sentence apology followed by a promise to never bother the American public ever again. Nor will the proceeds be donated to a charity dedicated to replacing the limbs blown off the soldiers her words helped send into harm’s way.

George W. Bush wrote a book recently, too, and gives interviews in which he is treated as a sort of retired national mascot, patted on the head and given milkbones. Dick Cheney went on a press tour and whoever was operating the joystick made his mouth move up and down about ISIL a lot. He’s employed by a speaker’s agency, which charges up to $75,000 to send him into a university or corporation, to discuss leadership and politics. Douglas Feith is being published by major newspapers. John Yoo is a free man.

We put Lynndie England on trial for the crimes of Donald Rumsfeld. We debate, vociferously, the merits of presenting Chris Kyle’s story to the public when not every detail of every single person of the hundreds that he killed can be verified. We tell ourselves, when we do this, that integrity matters.

Integrity does matter. Brian Williams is responsible for his exaggerations. Because somebody else told a bigger lie, that doesn’t make a smaller one true. And Brian Williams is not some powerless victim, lest anyone think he’s being nailed to a cross.

But something’s going on here, something little and nasty, where we can only bring ourselves to tear down one small part of a story. Where we can only bring ourselves to call one part of a lie a lie. If it’s just some news anchor, if it’s just some guy on TV, we can study each utterance, find out what is and isn’t real, and call him to account for it.

If it’s our government, our president, his men, well, then, that’s too big a lie to wrap our heads around. That’s too much for us to think about. If the person we voted for, if the people he chose, if they all lied and schemed and embellished and colluded, if they built a world of falsehoods and sent thousands of people into it to die, that means our own memories are suspect. That means they didn’t just lie to us. They helped make it okay for us to lie to ourselves.

If we have to take that apart, then we have to change how we all remember the war. Easier to pick apart how one man talks about it.

That’s the kind of lie we can all agree should be exposed, and for which someone should be punished.


5 thoughts on “The Only Lies That Mattered: Brian Williams and What We Fact Check Now

  1. Well, Brian Williams is in a public position of extraordinary trust. George W. Bush was just a Republican president.

  2. That’s really sort of it. We expect the Scott Walkers and George W. Bushes and Chris Kyles of the world to lie, apparently. So it’s fine when they do. (I am not saying I agree with or endorse this world view — just that it’s the one America runs with.) But if you’re on the Left, well, one foul ball, and you’re out.

  3. I grew up in a dry alcoholic family which means that we experienced less of the booze but all the dysfunction. When I look at right wing politics—especially that brand developed by Team George W. Bush (an alcoholic who turned over a new leaf by embracing evangelicalism)—I’m reminded of the alcoholic family messages we internalized including the expansive “We’re all perfect,” with brag-talk and the hushed and/or implied “We don’t talk about it,” with the shameful stuff.

    Having waited years for traditional media to unpack the dry alcoholic disaster of that administration, I realize we’ll be waiting forever until never (because of their own complicity in that unpleasant administration). Glad to find another blog written by people who continue to drag the ugliness of this “alcoholic politics” into the light so it can be seen and, hopefully, stopped.

  4. I wrote a long piece about what Williams lying means. At
    , Hullabaloo and My blog,
    I understand why they went after him what I want to know is what it signals. It doesn’t signal a new desire for the media to be honest. It signals that the need to bolster the Iraq war is over and we can poke holes in it because they need the money for ISIS now.

    Everything is still pro-war. Even this story about Williams is pro-war, just taking some of the credit away from the media and putting it back on the military.

    What if his lie was covering up some kind of atrocity? “We were bombing civilians and someone shot back.” Well let Williams lie about it because if the truth came out we would look bad, this way we don’t.

    But I do want to think about how we use this new realization that “integrity” as part of the brand might have some value. Let’s look at how the market and the ratings deal with this since that is the only thing that REALLY matters. Say that it comes down on the side of punishing the William and the market “likes it” does that mean integrity matters? Okay then shall we have more?
    What about if it goes up because of something else entirely? We can still say it matters and then use it as a club for the other networks.
    You keep liars on your staff it hits your brand. To keep the brand pure you don’t do this kind of lying.
    We’ll see

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