After four months.
In his first post-suspension interview on June 19, safely on the home NBC turf of the Today show, he persistently dodged a pivotal question Matt Lauer asked but didn’t press forcefully enough: Did he actively know that he was lying when he was telling his many exaggerated tales?
He wouldn’t go there. He just repeated that he got things wrong. Said things “that weren’t true.” His ego made him pump up his stories, but he never intended to mislead anyone.
As genuinely ham-fisted as he’s trying to appear in his sorry-soaked reemergence, Williams is still far from genuine. He’s still putting forward a persona, still trying to sell a man sitting across from him on buying the product he’s creating. Those long-breathed mea culpa sentences are meant to seem clear and naked enough to distract you from noticing they are still equivocations, still conspicuously never add up to I knew I was lying and I kept doing it.
That Williams can’t rid himself of these last pinches of mealy-mouthed misdirection even now, when he’s had months to purge them, months to come up with an elevator-pitch explanation that deals with the “lie” third rail, is an interesting let down. He’s sincere, all right. He’s absolutely sorry it all happened, because he really must be sorry and you—the audience who can make this nightmarish chapter dissolve into merely a poignant character-building exercise in the life of a likely self-defined great news man and sacrosanct entertainer—really need him to be sorry. So he’s sorry. He owns this.
But he won’t own this: I knew I was lying and I kept doing it.
His continued inability to admit that, to get down in the shit and say this is what I am, makes these long-winded apologies hollow. Now, when any fragile privilege he retains to appear on television depends on him being utterly, and perhaps absurdly, honest, that hollowness could be fatal to his continued public existence.
Or at least should be. What will eventually pan out in this bizarre affair—an iconic news personality being publicly humiliated, principal-officed and severely demoted for basically telling tall tales—will rely on several factors, but none so influential as the fickle mood several slices of the American public happen to be in when something makes them contemplate Brian Williams en masse again. Much rests on sheer luck, but I doubt he’ll survive his first kerfuffle at MSNBC. His resentful staffers, being painted as the bush team, won’t stand for any big-timing from the $50 million fabulist, and riding steerage after you’ve spent years in first class will get old fast. Lastly, this serial bar-room bullshitter will need to go cold-turkey on telling false tales, anywhere, and the jackals will be waiting for him to fail at that tall task.
I wonder if Williams’ admitted penchant for self-aggrandizing has also made him view his crime as a larger act of villainy than it is. That would be ironic, because it wasn’t the seriousness or magnitude of his sin that torpedoed him, it was the pettiness of it. The universal, relatable commonness of it.
We’re not accustomed to seeing shit storms of this severity spawn from an uninteresting widespread habit we understand so innately (i.e., exaggerating anecdotes). Think about it. In mulling over any human being ever impaled on the national stage for doing something that ranged from breathtakingly arrogant to criminally murderous—Nixon, Clinton, Snowden, McVeigh—our brain has to handle their violation with tongs. We might fully comprehend what they did, but why and how they did it? Not so much. It’s hard to possess the native understanding that lets you fully put yourself in their shoes, mentally. Maybe we can walk with them a few steps, but at some point, that perfect cognitive simpatico pops like a soap bubble and is replaced with Christ, why would you even try to pull that off?
With Brian Williams, however, there’s little Greek here. Every person alive, except for hypocrites and liars of a larger caliber, knows exactly what it’s like to own a mouth that’s running and spinning little lies just because it can. We know exactly what it’s like to pull the bullshit off the spice rack and sprinkle.
We all tell fish stories. We cut or morph or simplify, add a smidgeon of impact, often merely to justify the retelling to disinterested ears. The total stranger at your company who, say, was jailed for tax evasion twenty years ago creeps ever closer in proximity; he ends up in your division, in your department, in your office for chitchat as he becomes “a guy I knew.” Time and distant life circles eventually make parsing trivialities of reality feel tediously stupid.
Everything worth remembering vivifies. Tiffs become fights. Skirmishes become battles. Barely raised eyebrows become homicidal glares. Sex partners become a little hotter and swell in number. Warm goodbyes become profound partings. Moments of passable athletic competence become hazy glimpses of understated mastery.
Why All Memories Are Fiction
Both scientists and justice systems are increasingly aware that nothing we attempt to remember, whether it happened five minutes or 80 years ago, has much veracity when it comes to objective truth.
Whittling and reshaping the sand grains we continually sift from the vast filler of reality is an unconscious necessity that lets us get on with the imperatives of eating, working and screwing while staying roundabout sane. Ignoring almost everything except the thimble culled by our selective perception saves enormous stores of cognitive effort and time. When we isolate those few specks, we focus our microscope on them, render all the unseen areas in clay and finally hammer each mutated chip into the fanciful mental mosaic we create instant by instant and call life.
This happens in so many real-time nanoseconds as brain matter pans your perceptions for shiny memory dust, but then it continues to happen for the rest of your life whenever you recall anything—long after the flecks and mosaics have been discarded and replaced with copies of copies of millionth-generation copies. Science maintains that you actually have no original memories; every glint of the neuronal schema we call a memory is created anew out of gray-matter broadcloth every time you ask your brain to conjure it up for some biased purpose. (Check out this Radiolab episode for more on this.) You can think of the process of remembering as metaphorically similar to telling a police sketch artist what to draw by describing a 1970s caricature of a 1940s charcoal drawing of a 1920s pinhole photo composite of something that was based on reality—but never actually existed in the way we’re certain it did.
The whisper-down-the-lane bastardization happens partly because our emotions and knowledge of the present pollute the memory and alter it every time it seeps into consciousness, progressively creating false memories. Not even “flashbulb moments” are immune; people recalling their whereabouts during the JFK assassination, the Challenger explosion and even 9-11 are often wrong, as discussed by the neurologist Robert Burton, MD in his book On Being Certain. Most continue to believe their memories reflect reality even after they’ve been proven incorrect by a hard record of their location on the fateful day.
On and on.
This is what humans do.
Much of it is blameless and natural. Any snatch of reality, whether it’s waiting at a red light or storming Omaha Beach, is chock-full of mundane, empty flotsam that is meaningless and, as people say, neither here nor there. Filler. The kind that comprises and defines reality. (This rivet inside the landing boat is different from the rivet an inch away from it.) Our five senses work hard to discern the remarkable .00001 percent in all perceptions so our brains can distill the remnants further into fluid organic impressions we erroneously call “what happened.” And because we need experiences to be narratives, “what happened” must be a story that makes some kind of sense and is also consistent with some notions we hold about the world (life is unfair, squirrels are devious, I’m smarter than you).
Now, these processes bedevil us when we sincerely think we’re telling the truth. Williams probably falls into the second bigger category. He was lamely trying to blame these brain quirks (for more on them, see “Why All Memories Are Fiction” at right) when he said “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other” during his disastrous on-air apology on February 4. It’s telling that he did not try to bolster the support for this “brain error” excuse and double-down on it during his interview with Matt Lauer. His advisors probably told him he’d look like a sniveling fuck-up trying to get off on a technicality, and he now faced the bowel-churning “crook or schnook” choice in PR damage control. Crook, which in this case means self-aggrandizing bullshitter, has inflicted grave injury. Network news anchors, however, cannot be schnooks.
Like a man with a long-calcified confidence in his powers of persuasion and eloquence to move obstacles, Williams is trying to hover in the non-existent middle, rhetorically insinuating there’s a third option which might be called the “ego-driven bullshitter who doesn’t really mean to lie” defense. This will fail, because people know there’s no such goddamned thing.
So he’s a crook of the most abounding kind. On par with the thief who takes more pennies from the little dish at the cash register than he ought to. He’s a common bullshitter.
We don’t need Freud to understand why we bullshit. The most simplistic evolutionary impulses lay it bare. When people knowingly embellish some account or anecdote, which most of us do daily with about the same forethought and degree of evil intention as combing our hair, that whittling and reshaping of memories is predictably guided by a handful of prehistoric motivations: to gain or keep power or status, to win allies or intimidate enemies, to protect or harm someone, or to acquire or defend some resource. Throughout his life, I’m sure Brian Williams grazed among these motivations like an epicurean at a 3-star salad bar, perfecting his talent to bullshit, to sell whatever off-shade of truth was most worth selling at any given moment. He became very good at it.
In other words, he’s an adept human. Fit to do virtually anything normal humans do. However, Williams has the ironically poor luck to have attained his enormous success in just about the only role where being a garden-variety bullshitter is a fatal liability: a television news anchor yapping at the biggest viewership the dying industry can still muster. If he was an electrician, scientist, doctor, teacher, politician or just about anything else, the human act of lacing his anecdotes with a dusting of bullshit would probably be as inconsequential to him as it is to every other perpetrator.
Hell, he could probably even get away with it if he was in the White House. Hillary Clinton is back on in a presidential campaign years after her “my aircraft was under fire” lie (notably similar to Williams’ lie) further hobbled her 2008 primary run. George W. Bush took self-deprecating shots at his misrememberings. And despite his nickname, Lincoln probably wouldn’t have made love to a polygraph when he was unspooling his hourly yarns.
Perhaps Williams even considered evoking folksy-talking presidents in his attempts at explaining his lies. If he wasn’t from north Jersey, one could envision him croaking out a blame-shucking Southernism akin to “sometimes my mouth gets going so good that my brain just wants to sit back and see how it’ll end.” He still might. His stricken hubris is still there, tainting his sorries.
While Williams still won’t reckon with the “L” word after four months of forced soul-gazing, there are hordes of other presentable, clean-shaven press soldiers and reliable talking heads who have never forced themselves to publicly reckon with it. Lester Holt is just one. Thousands of them no doubt harbor their own inner bullshit monster, at least if they’re normal people, but they’ve either been lucky or restrained it much more effectively. All deserve a crack at any supposed truth-telling TV gig before Williams does, even if we’re talking about MSNBC. He should graciously get out of their way. He’s an immensely talented man, but delivering hard news isn’t where his heart is, as NBC well knows.
Highly skilled bullshitters are needed in many industries, just not the one we still depend on to call a lie a lie.
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