There had been enough written about the plight of Brian Williams that further comment here had seemed unnecessary. Yet three items in today’s New York Times suggested that there might something else to be said. The first was a column by David Brooks, “The Act of Rigorous Forgiving,” the second, an column by Tara Parker-Pope, “Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?” and the third an article entitled “Brian Williams Loses Lofty Spot on a Trustworthiness Scale.” Then, having gathered our thoughts, NBC announced this evening that Williams had been suspended for six months without pay. We do not ordinarily try to deal with breaking news, but this seemed an occasion to make the attempt.
The suspension of Wiliams leaves open the question of whether he will return to the anchor chair in six months – or ever. That may involve subsidiary question of whether the contents of NBC’s internal investigation will be disclosed or, perhaps more likely, leaked and if so, what light they will shed on the whole affair. The only certainty is that we have not seen the end of the story.
Prior to Williams’s suspension, there appeared to be two mutually inconsistent approaches suggesting that Williams need not resign or be replaced as anchor of the NBC Nightly News. The first was captured in the column by David Brooks which was, as its title promised, a disquisition on forgiveness. The column was characteristically thoughtful and well-written but, in the end, had only marginal relevance to the situation of Brian Williams. Turning specifically to Williams, Brooks concluded rather half-heartedly:
I guess I think Brian Williams shouldn’t have to resign, for the reason David Carr emphasized in The Times: Williams’s transgressions were not part of his primary job responsibilities. And because I think good people are stronger when given second chances.
That argument, however, is unpersuasive. Such compartmentalization (“not part of his primary job responsibilities”) sometimes works: for example, Bill Clinton overcame his misadventures with Monica Lewinsky not only to survive as President but to become a beloved and powerful elder statesman of the Democratic Party. But the standards for truth-telling by a network news anchor may be higher than they are for politicians and even presidents.
Carr himself followed the point Brooks cited by immediately observing:
But if the executives who run NBC come to believe that he can’t credibly cover combat or hurricanes, or call a politician on a lie, they will dismiss him even though there is no plan in place for succession.
I watched him read the news on Friday night. Even playing hurt, he is very good at it. And I thought about how weird it would be to see him doing the job in a hair shirt for months or years to come. It’s an image that clanks.
Moreover, Carr also found Williams’s initial response, a “muddled apology,” to have been a mistake. Carr agreed with a critic suggesting that what was called for was a “real apology” in which Williams abandoned the defense of “misremembering.” But, while such a “full-throated, unmodulated apology” might wring a sense of forgiveness from the public, it would be a dubious platform from which to continue a career as a preeminent journalist. It would involve a confession that not only was his “story” a lie, but so also was the initial apology. It is more likely that the clank would grow even louder.
The alternative plea on Williams’s behalf (embraced by neither Brooks nor Carr) was that Williams had nothing further to apologize for: that he was an essentially an innocent victim of his own faulty but genuine recollection. As explained by Parker-Pope:
Numerous scientific studies show that memories can fade, shift and distort over time. Not only can our real memories become unwittingly altered and embellished, but entirely new false memories can be incorporated into our memory bank, embedded so deeply that we become convinced they are real and actually happened.
Evidence that creative but genuine fallibility is not uncommon makes a defense of innocence in Brian Williams’s case more plausible than many may have supposed. On the other hand, it may have been undermined by NBC’s internal investigation. Was there, for example, evidence that questions about Williams’s story had previously come to his attention? He had, after all, abundant resources at his disposal to confirm or refute his “recollection.” In any case, the difficulty of the false memory defense is that, even where valid, there is no apparent means by which it can be proven to the satisfaction of a justifiably skeptical public. And a presumption of innocence seldom applies in the court of public opinion.
David Brooks attempted to put Williams’s predicament in a broader context:
But the larger question is how we build community in the face of scandal. Do we exile the offender or heal the relationship? Would you rather become the sort of person who excludes, or one who offers tough but healing love?
While that is a fair point in general, it may have limited application to the unique status of a network anchor. Indeed, the results of the survey reported in the Times indicate that Williams’s place in that role may already have been fatally impaired. According to the survey, Williams’s position on a scale of trustworthiness had plummeted from 23d to 835th among nationally known figures. It is ground, we suggest, that he is not likely to recover by way of spending six months in the penalty box.
Whether Williams’s career in broadcast journalism is over remains to be seen. If it is, there is every reason to wish him success in other endeavors and to hope that he may find it. He is, by all accounts, not only bright, articulate and charming, but a very decent human being. Indeed, this could be an example of the too familiar truth that sometimes bad things happen to good people. In any case, someone with Williams’s talents and resources should find many opportunities to put them to good use. It may be that by doing so he will experience the healing love Brooks prescribes.