Should we forgive Brian Williams?
After four months, we now know what will happen to former NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams after being suspended for lying about his “war time” experience: He will not be returning to the anchor desk. The very able Lester Holt, who’s been filling in for Williams, will become the permanent anchor, a position well deserved for a journalist I’ve been watching and relying on for many years.
Williams will return to NBC, anchoring the network’s cable off-shoot, MSNBC.
“Mr. Williams was suspended,” The New York Times writes (June 19), “for six months in February after acknowledging that he exaggerated an account of a helicopter attack in Iraq. One NBC executive characterized the helicopter incident as the ‘one significant mistake’ that occurred during his news broadcast. Another incident in question was a statement Mr. Williams made in 2011 on Nightly News about flying into Baghdad with U.S. Navy Seal Team 6 at the start of the war, this person said, but added that the investigation into this matter was inconclusive.
“Otherwise, Mr. William’s embellishments happened ‘for the most part’ on late-night programs and in other public appearances…”
The fall of Brian Williams is not something anyone could have predicted for a journalist who sat before the public each night for ten years and gave a clear, and at times, compelling delivery of the day’s news. His calm, and fair-minded approach to even the most controversial of topics, made him a credible source in the eyes of the public.
Last Friday (June 19), Williams appeared with Today show host Matt Lauer to sit for a no-restrictions interview about his behavior. In apologizing, Williams conceded, “I said things that weren’t true… It had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else… This came from clearly a bad place, a bad urge inside me. This was clearly ego-driven, a desire to better my role in a story I was already in. That’s what I’ve been tearing apart and unpacking and analyzing.”
“Looking back, with such clarity now, it is so clear to me,” Williams said, “I told stories that were wrong. It wasn’t from a place where I was trying to use my job and title to mislead. I got it wrong. I own this, and I own up this.”
“He couldn’t say the L word,” New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley writes (June 19). “…Williams used every verbal variation imaginable to express error and regret. Every one, that is, except the two words that his colleague turned inquisitor, Matt Lauer, kept pressing him to say: ‘I lied.’
“And that resistance made Mr. Williams’s first appearance since he was suspended from NBC News unexpectedly raw, and distressing,” Stanley continues. “This was an anchor who throughout his career had the cool, confident style of a John F. Kennedy; in parts of the interview, he came close to Richard M. Nixon in a flop sweat.”
Actually, parts of Williams’ carefully chosen words reminded me of Nixon’s 1977 interview with British journalist David Frost who kept pressing Nixon to come out and admit his crimes to the American people. The closest and most revealing acknowledgement of culpability from Nixon came when Frost cornered him with the question, “Are you really saying the President can do something illegal?”
“I’m saying that when the President does it, it’s not illegal!” a stone-cold Nixon said.
However, Brian Williams was never as blatantly arrogant as Nixon, and yet, I was troubled by the fact that he could not bring himself to publicly admit that any exaggeration, deception, twisting of words, is, in fact, a lie. How is he going to interview others in a similar situation when he can’t admit his own?
New York Times journalist Emily Steel interviewed Mike Paul (June 19), of Reputation Doctor, a public relations firm in New York. “The qualifying, and the parsing of words, was problematic, and betrayed a lack of sincerity,” Paul said. “There are no ifs or buts in a true apology. This was a non-apology apology.”
At one point, Lauer asked his former colleague if, over the past several months, he had a chance to look back at the stories he lied about. “I have discovered a lot of things,” Williams said. “I have been listening to and watching what amounts to the black box recordings from my career. I’ve gone back through everything — basically 20 years of public utterances… “What has happened in the past has been identified and torn apart by me and has been fixed and has been dealt with.”
In an effort at both transparency and trust-building, I would have advised Williams to have prepared a statement detailing just what “has been fixed and dealt with” regarding any deceptions told. Accountability carries with it the responsibility to make a full and complete list of any and all transgressions.
When it comes to credibility, “the powers of the press,” ethicist Michael Josephson writes, “should be treated as a public trust. Journalists must inspire credibility – faith and confidence in the honesty, accuracy and fairness of the information they convey.”
Whether Williams told false stories on talk shows, or in public speeches, does not change the public perception of the individual telling those stories.
“Journalists should also accept moral responsibility,” Josephson adds, “for the foreseeable consequences of actions and in-actions… and when in error, they should make full, fair, prominent and prompt corrections.”
In a public statement released before his Friday interview with Lauer, Williams said, “I’m sorry. I said things that weren’t true. I let down my NBC colleagues and our viewers, and I’m determined to earn back their trust.”
Nineteenth century Native American, Chief Joseph, said, “Good words do not last long until they amount to something.”
Owing to his determination, my hope is that Williams will take the next step and re-think his approach to the public’s trust and take the opportunity to make a full, fair and prominent correction for all false statements he’s made.
So, should we forgive Williams?
According to psychologist Dr. Ben Dean, “the capacity to forgive is related to the character strength of empathy. People who can empathize with an offender and see things from that person’s perspective are much better able to forgive.”
From an ethical standpoint, all of us make mistakes. All of us have one or more events in our lives that, upon reflection, would cause us to flinch. However, forgiveness is not an instant response to an act of contrition. It’s a process whereby the offender begins with sincere words of apology, and follows those words with actions that demonstrate a positive change in attitude and behavior. That is how you rebuild trust.
Williams has begun the process, but there’s more work to done.