Brian Williams probably isn’t a liar. Based on recent revelations, amplifications and clarifications, he appears to be a serial exaggerator.
To his critics that’s a distinction without a difference, which is why NBC News would be wise to replace him permanently in the anchor chair rather than suspend him for six months. Williams’ case is enlightening, reminding us that even honest folks occasionally take liberties with facts.
Fishermen seem particularly prone to exaggeration. “The one that got away” is always described as larger and more feisty when the tale is told back on shore.
Golf, dependent on self-penalizing and complete honesty during play, is often marked by embellishment at the 19th hole. That two-foot birdie putt becomes a twisting four-footer. The drive that travelled 215 yards is recalled as soaring at least 260.
What about parents? “When I was your age...” What? The snow was deeper, the walk was longer, the times were tougher. Perhaps. Or, maybe it just seems that way in life’s rearview mirror.
It could be said that a liar is someone who wasn’t even there, while an exaggerator is someone who was so close he could see it, feel it, taste it. Indeed, “It could have been me!”
When I was a kid, Bobby Kennedy came to our small New York State town, campaigning for the presidential nomination. It was brief. He was on a flatbed truck that pulled into the local drive-in theater so the candidate could say a few words, shake a few hands, and quickly move on to the next stop.
I couldn’t squeeze close enough. He spoke with a bullhorn and his words were drowned out by the truck’s engine and the crowd noise. I watched in envy as he shook my friend’s hand.
For the next several years - until I acquired better stories to replace it - I claimed to have “heard” Bobby that night, which I did not. I told a few people that I “met” JFK’s brother, and more than once I recounted how I “shook his hand.”
The more I told it, the more convincing it became - so much so that the story began to ring true in my own ears. Besides, I was there, so close, that it could have been me.
I’ve heard panelists on cable talkshows say that when Brian Williams speaks about riding a chopper that took fire in Iraq, or when he describes corpses floating by his window during Hurricane Katrina, he really believes what he’s saying is true. I’m not buying that. To go that far he’d have to be clinically delusional. Williams wasn’t boasting to buddies in a bar, he was speaking as a managing editor of NBC News to millions of Americans on television. He should have known better.
The problem with exaggeration is that it becomes less acceptable in inverse proportion to the size of the stage and the weight of the speaker. Even Walter Cronkite, often referred to at the height of his career at CBS as “The most trusted man in America,” acknowledged the distinction. Asked to comment on surveys about his trustworthiness, Cronkite said, “they clearly hadn’t polled my wife.”
Journalists today face a tough time with credibility. A Pew poll a few years back had 44 percent of Americans giving news media a negative believability rating. That’s the lens through which Brian Williams’ comments are seen.
He should step down permanently and pursue other things. He should do it voluntarily, not through back-room arm twisting with NBC’s lawyers. That way, when Brian Williams recounts his departure he can say it was entirely his decision, and he can say it without any exaggeration.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker