In a moment of weakness or temporary insanity yesterday, I found myself watching "Reliable Sources" on CNN (I know, I know, what the hell was I thinking?) and discovered a panel of news "experts" talking about the Lyin' Brian scandal. (It is a measure of their cluelessness that, three-quarters of the way into a show devotedy exclusively to the Brian Williams sagay, one of them wondered how such trivial stories become such hot topics today.) To a person, the panel members espoused some version of this theory: We should be careful not to judge him hastily. After moments of great stress, people do get things mixed up in their memories. It's the fog of war, don't you know?
Well, crap. For one thing, for the fog of war to affect you, you have to actually be in the war. For stress to mess with you, you have to actually be undergoing stress. And second, this isn't exactly his only tale of "look at me, I'm just an aw-shucks regular guy who gets caught in terrible circumstances and is forced to act heroically." He told of being dramatically in the flood waters in New Orleans, reporting from a section that, well, the flood waters sort of missed. As a volunteer fireman, he once rushed into a burning building and saved a puppy. Or was it two? His accounts have varied.
What Williams’ lie was about was what lies are always about: No one who actually scored the winning touchdown on the high-school football team misremembers it as sitting on the bench. The term “fish tale” does not mean you mistakenly tell people you caught a sickly 8-ounce catfish when actually you snagged a 95-pound monster marlin.
Exactly. If you're in a war, you might misremember some of the events. But if you're not, you do not "misremember" that you were in fact in it. You lie. You steal valor.
Not that any of this matters. As even Maureen Dowd ("the queen of Knucklehead Row," heh) understands. Of course, she gets the reason for it's irrelevance wrong when she says that "One anchor exerted moral authority once and that was Walter Cronkite, because he risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth about the fact that we were losing the Vietnam War.” We were not, in fact, losing the war, and almost half of the country had lost faith in it, so he wasn't exactly going out on a limb, courageously.
There is another explanation.
I bring this up because it explains why Brian Williams’ trustworthiness doesn’t matter, why the trustworthiness of television (and newspaper) “journalists” no longer matters in general, and why the internet upended them and rendered them obsolete. It’s not merely one technology replacing another. Mainstream journalists could maintain their authority amidst the noise… if they just didn’t lie all the time. All. The. Time. It’s because they don’t tell the truth that we don’t trust them. They keep silent about what they don’t want us to know (say, the IRS scandal) and overplay what they want us to care about (the Valerie Plame non-scandal). And what Dowd’s column demonstrates is: They don’t even know what the truth is! They all live happily together in a foggy wonderland of left-wing mythology where its ALL Brian Williams under RPG fire all the time.
Cronkite “risked his career to go on TV and tell the truth,” and Edward R. Murrow toppled Joseph McCarthy and there was no stained Lewinsky dress and George W. Bush went AWOL and Obama called Benghazi a terrorist attack right away and the science is settled and Brian Williams took RPG fire. It’s all one thing, and only my polite upbringing keeps me from saying what that one thing is.
TV anchors can't even pretend to have moral authority these days the way Cronkite did. So they have to become personalities and go on Letterman and host Saturday Night Live. The line between news and entertainment, the real and the pretend, gets ever more blurred. The wonder is not that Brian Williams is a fabulist but that all the rest of them aren't. That we know of yet.