There But For the Grace of God Go I

Brian Williams is having a bad week.

Why? Because he has been going around telling a story that isn’t true, and when he was confronted, he made an apology that also wasn’t true.

The problem seems to be that, while Brian Williams has been claiming that in Iraq in 2003 he was in a helicopter that was shot down by an RPG, he was not.  In his apology, he said that it was the helicopter in front of him that was shot down and that he had since conflated the two in his mind; however, that also appears to be untrue – it appears his helicopter was nowhere near the helicopter that was shot down.

And now, pending an investigation by NBC, he has self-suspended his anchor duties for “a few days” while the media and Internet roil with outrage.

We’re never going to get tired of this, are we, this pretending that I am holier than thou?  It’s never going to get old, watching people tear each other down for things most, if not all, of us do.  Mark my words: when the last two men left on the planet face each other, one will burn the other for something they both did the day before.

Show me a man who has never lied, and I’ll show you a man who’s lying to you right now.  Whether Brian Williams lied or strategically misremembered really doesn’t matter – either way, he succumbed to an impulse so normal and human it wouldn’t bear mentioning except that he’s being pilloried for it.

It is so tempting to make the story bigger, scarier, to become the center of it, to seem braver, better, more important.  People’s reactions are so rewarding, their awe, their interest.  Stories grow under the light of admiring attention, sometimes without the tellers even seeming to realize it.

Williams hasn’t undermined our trust in him in some extraordinary way; on the contrary, what he’s done is completely ordinary.  It’s totally unremarkable, and, unless it turns out that he has been fabricating news stories (and not merely embellishing anecdotes), totally unimportant.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone – well, OK, I, at least, definitely won’t be throwing any then.  I’m the king of hyperbole: I exaggerate my stories all the time.  It makes them better stories, and it makes them more fun to tell.  When I write, or when I discuss a scientific result at work, I try to be scrupulous about what is true and real and what isn’t, but when I’m describing the events of last Thanksgiving dinner, I stretch and elaborate like it’s my job.

I know the difference between the two circumstances, and I’ll bet Brian Williams does, too.  I keep reading that, because he was a news anchor, he should be held to a higher standard – a higher standard, or a perfect standard?

Is it reasonable to expect that our news anchors never succumb to the desire to be the hero of a story?  Are they not allowed to slip up, even on one anecdote, even if, in doing so, they don’t harm anyone at all?  Perfection is more than human, and as long as we keep requiring other humans to be more than human, we are going to be disappointed.  And when we deny other men the pardons we expect for our own foibles, we are merely assholes.

Brian Williams looks vain and foolish – that is the appropriate punishment for the social exaggerator.  He should absolutely not lose his job.  That is absurd.

So I ask, as one inveterate exaggerator on behalf of another, let’s let this one go.  Let’s give Brian Williams a pass.

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