It’s open season on embattled, suspended and bound-to-be bounced outright NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. Among the latest to take a swipe at him was actor Jim Carrey.
Though Carrey’s remarks on the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary special were relatively tame, by the reaction of Matt Lauer and others on-camera you would think he had just made an off-color joke about everyone’s mama.
Earlier this week, I took Williams to task in a Bulldog Reporter column, headlined “Conflate This: NBC Should Fire Brian Williams Immediately.” Among other things, I likened Williams to Hunter S. Thompson, the originator of Gonzo journalism, as well as off-the-wall literary genius Kurt Vonnegut. Neither comparison was flattering, as you may imagine.
The Thompson reference came after I mused about the potential for fabricating the results of my long-ago interview of basketball star LeBron James:
“But what if I had tried to pull a Brian Williams stunt and resorted to some fictional story-telling? Alas, there’s this pesky additional element of facts that must also be part of the equation, at least for authentic journalists.
And, besides, Time had a cadre of gritty fact-checkers who would have exposed my trip down Hunter S. Thompson Lane.”
And Vonnegut, whose absurdist style included one book, Breakfast of Champions, in which the phrase “take a leak” actually meant “steal a mirror,” popped into my head after I heard Williams’ tap-dance of an interview with Stars & Stripes. As I wrote in Bulldog Reporter:
When people are caught in a lie, they frequently resort to passive verb tense to try to weasel their way out. Consider this excerpt from Williams’ Stars & Stripes interview last week:
“I would not have chosen to make this mistake. I don’t know what screw-up in my mind caused me to conflate one aircraft from the other.”
Kurt Vonnegut never wrote a more absurd line. Talk about trying to distance yourself from…yourself.
And can anyone tell me when “conflate” became the magical pixie dust that liars try to sprinkle on their tall tales? The word makes sense when inaccurately recalling who you saw a movie with, not whether you were the director or star of that same movie.
One of the more astonishing, and somewhat disturbing, developments in the wake of Brian Williams’ rapid fall from grace is the tendency among some to minimize his fabrications. One of the more curious items I have come across was this piece by Merrie Spaeth, who drops in an anecdote from her time working for her former boss, President Reagan, that is as non sequiter as it gets.
In her column, which was billed as a counter-point to my Bulldog Reporter piece, Merrie argues that Williams should come back because he has “had a vivid reminder of why reporters should always have a healthy dose of skepticism and ask the tough questions. I’m convinced it could make him a better reporter.”
No doubt, he’ll be better if he stops lying, too. All this poppy-cock verbiage is the equivalent of nails on the chalkboard to me. In college, I would get an “F” –known as the “Medill F”–if I misspelled one word. I remember agonizing over whether the article “the” in Bruce Hornsby & The Range was capitalized or lower-case. (Frankly, a Google search just now nets both “the” and “The,” to my continued consternation.)
Anyhow, that exacting standard was part of what made me a better reporter, and it’s why I am so appalled by these flimsy shoulder-shrugging pronouncements that Williams’ offense isn’t all that bad, after all.
Memo to all publicists and “strategic communicators” and whatever-other-phrasing-flavor-of-the-monthers out there: when you try to excuse away egregious lapses in character and integrity, it’s your character and integrity that is compromised in the process.