There’s a scene in Monty Python’s outrageous The Life of Brian where a crowd gathers outside the home of an ordinary guy mistaken for God incarnate. The man’s mother flings open an upper window and shouts down: “There’s no Messiah in here. There’s a mess all right, but no Messiah.”
She might have been talking about another Brian—Brian Williams. The NBC news anchor’s role as leading truth-teller to the nation has been shattered by revelations that he fabricated accounts from the field. Quite a mess indeed.
I’ve been struck by a couple of things in all the finger-pointing and hand-wringing among fellow journalists over the past week or so. First, while some have been pretty straight-talking about the implications and consequences of lying, there’s been a general air of some sympathy for “one of us.” Yet such empathy typically isn’t extended to others in positions of responsibility when they are caught with their pants down.
So much for “fair and balanced.”
Perhaps more important is the absence of any penetrating self-examination. There’s been a lot of talk about Williams’ actions. Yet I see little acknowledgment that while what he did was clearly wrong, at the heart of it all is an issue common to most of us in journalism: Ego.
Let’s be honest: we all prefer to see our name on the byline rather than “By Our Correspondent,” unless it’s safer not to be identified for some reason.
Yes, we have good motives in our work. Truth, justice, a heart for the underdog and all that. But we also like our Zelig moments in, if not the spotlight, at least some of the limelight—being known not for what we do or say but for reporting what other people do or say. It’s the gold-plated reputation—gilt by association, if you will allow the wordplay.
Journalism has always had its celebrities. Henry Morton Stanley of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” fame, who was on an assignment for the New York Herald when he tracked the missionary-explorer down in Africa. Ernie Pyle, the beloved wartime correspondent. But such figures were the exception. Most journalists labored in relative obscurity.
The lure of fame, it seems to me, has been heightened by a couple of things. As journalism has moved from being a trade to a profession, with inflated salaries and insider privileges, it’s blurred a line. The old adage of it being a job in which you “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” is harder to honor when you are increasingly among the very comfortable. And “speaking truth to power” can be tougher when you’re hobnobbing with the powerful.
In Williams’ case, there’s also the inherent, heightened challenge of television news. Those in print are not above seduction, of course. There were Stephen Glass’s elaborate fabrications at The New Republic, though he seems to have worked hard to try to transcend those wrongs. Then there were Jayson Blair’s inventions at The New York Times.
But for all its potential impact for good, we must remember that television offers maybe more temptation: it’s a medium driven above all by what looks good, rather than what necessarily matters. Images and image—something that the Bible calls “the lust of the eyes”—rule. Gotta dazzle.
Pride, privilege, prestige, pressure… I don’t know why Brian Williams made things up, but the whole saga reminds me that before we are truth-tellers, we need to be truth-livers. Psalm 51:6 tells us that God desires “truth in the inward parts.” That includes being honest about our motives as well as our actions.
A recent personal example: while chatting with a new acquaintance on a trip, he asked me about a somewhat public figure. I told him what I knew from my work in that scene, adding something else I had heard secondhand from a usually reliable source, but did not know for sure.
I didn’t think anything more about it all until I woke up in the middle of the night (for me, not something typical). I was ashamed to realize I had passed along something that was rumor because it made me seem more significant, somehow—that I was on the inside of this kind of stuff. Next day I had to seek out the guy I had spoken with, admit I’d been gossiping, and ask him to forgive me.
Announcing Williams’ suspension for six months, the president of NBC News, Deborah Turness, said that “as managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.”
She could have been referencing Psalm 51:6. She was talking about the inner life of Brian.