Published February 11, 2015
I understand why NBC News suspended its anchor Brian Williams for six months without pay. His offense was serious, the news division’s credibility is hemorrhaging, and the story was growing rather than receding. It was dominating our conversation, to the point that even local and national sports radio programs were devoting time to it. Something clearly needed to be done. All things taken together, the penalty seems reasonable–tough, but reasonable–to me.
I’ve never met Mr. Williams and I don’t watch NBC Nightly News. But from what I can piece together, it appears as if his vanity and thirst for celebrity got the better of him. Stories that were at first embellished became, over time, fictionalized. He seems to have wanted his life to appear more interesting and more heroic than it was. Once the soldiers he flew with exposed his my-helicopter-was-shot-by-an-RPG-in-Iraq account as false, his career imploded. Within days the man who was seemingly on top of the journalist world has seen his life “shattered,” in the words of a close friend.
I can see why. Mr. Williams has become the object of unremitting ridicule, especially on social media. Like many others, I saw tweets mocking him–the pictures of Brian Williams at the Last Supper, next to Lincoln, on the moon, at the Battle of Thermopyle–and sent them to people I know. They seemed clever to me. But now, days later, I have a somewhat different view.
The reason is that responsible criticism of Brian Williams is one thing; non-stop derision and ridicule is something else. We’ve seen plenty of both. But the overall effect of the commentary about him–when you combine it all together–isn’t to hold him accountable; it’s to crush him. To shatter him. To make him a national joke. That would be painful for anyone–and I suspect it’s particularly painful for a man like Williams, who obviously cares very much what people, particularly people in the political class, think of him.
I don’t have any brilliant insights into when one crosses the line from legitimate criticism to unbecoming snideness to casual cruelty. All I can tell you is that for most of us, our failures, including our character failures, are not on full public display. They’re not focused on, dissected, talked about on national television and made the punch line of endless jokes. If they were, it would be a rather searing experience.
I get that Brian Williams is a public figure and he has benefited enormously from his fame. But he’s also a human being. And his sin–pride, vanity, the insatiable desire to be thought of as cooler and better and more impressive than we actually are–is fairly widespread, especially in the world he inhabits. That doesn’t lead everyone to embellish and mislead like Williams did, of course; but most of us have, in recounting our achievements and experiences, made them appear in a better light than they deserve.
I believe in accountability, and I hope I’m not downplaying the seriousness of what Mr. Williams has done. And obviously if it turns out that he’s misled us on more occasions than we know, the consequences will increase. But there is such a thing as piling on; and schadenfreude, while in some circumstances an understandable response, is never an admirable one. Much of the delight people seem to be taking in the fall of Brian Williams doesn’t have anything to do with him (he seems to be a pleasant enough individual); it seems to have to do with his position in life and success.
So I for one hope that the Brian Williams story begins to ebb, that no other transgressions are found, and that he’s given a second chance and makes the most of it. Often the best stories have to do with repair and redemption.
The writer Philip Yancey once said that the church’s mission was to be a haven of grace in this world of ungrace. We’ve seen plenty of the latter in our political culture. We all might be better served if we saw just a bit more of the former. Because one day you and I may need grace extended to us, just as Brian Williams needs it extended to him.
Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.