Let me put the bottom line up front on this one: We should not continue to dog-pile NBC Nightly News managing editor and host Brian Williams for his exaggerated war story that has caused such a furor this past week, and has led to the anchor’s pulling himself off the air until NBC completes its inquiry into the affair.
In case you missed it, Mr. Williams was discovered to have exaggerated his experience in the Iraq War in 2003, claiming to have come under fire in a helicopter flying from Kuwait to Iraq. Mr. Williams claimed that his helo was forced down, and was then guarded by a 3rd Infantry armored mechanized platoon, the command sergeant major of which recently retired from service. The occasion of this retirement, in which Brian Williams feted the retiring senior enlisted man at a Rangers hockey game, brought the latest manifestation of the exaggerated story, and the proverbial heat down on Mr. Williams and NBC.
So, why cut Mr. Williams any slack, when (some) in the veteran community are so ruthless, for example, in publicly shaming those guilty of stolen valor? Simply put, this is not the same thing as stolen valor. Mr. Williams did not falsely claim to be a service member. He did not put on a uniform he was not fit to wear. He did not display an award for valor (or for anything else) that he did not earn.
Brian Williams is guilty of a much more pedestrian crime—that of war story exaggeration. Well, if we are going to prosecute that crime, we better empty the jails and get ready to fill them with a whole bunch of active duty and veteran military members. Hell, I will probably need to be fingerprinted and booked, as well. God knows, I have spun a tale or two that transformed a mundane “war” story into one a tad more exciting or adventurous. Guilty as charged. Granted, I would probably never claim to have been shot down in an aircraft had I not been, but exaggeration is a matter of degree. And, yes, Brian Williams exaggerated to a great degree.
Make no mistake, Mr. Williams should surely be embarrassed about this episode. First, he spun this tale on television, where one should no doubt be more sober (and factual) in the telling of war stories, as opposed to, say, in a bar with buddies over beers. Secondly, Brian Williams is not only a journalist, but an anchor on one of the leading networks, whose broadcast is seen by millions nightly. That position demands the most upright behavior and honesty on the part of the person delivering the news, to which multitudes tune in to gain accurate information.
Mr. Williams, in short, should have known better, and should not have unjustly bestowed a measure of glory on himself through this false tale.
For these reasons, Mr. Williams’ mistake is a more serious one than would otherwise be the case for a routine episode of war story exaggeration. To put it bluntly, we all should—and do—expect more of a prominent and respected newsman. Mr. Williams, furthermore, appears to understand this. He has pulled himself off the air and expressed regret about his mendacity.
Brian Williams, no doubt, has learned his lesson. He might deserve all the ribbing he is getting (and memes of which he is finding himself the subject), but he does not deserve to be fired. He does not deserve to lose the respect of his viewers. He does not deserve to lose his place as anchor of NBC Nightly News. Furthermore, he does not deserve to lose the respect of military members and veterans.
Mr. Williams has been good to the military and its members. As noted in a statement by the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Paul Rieckhoff, Mr. Williams has time and again stepped up to help veterans in need. He has supported the Bob Woodruff Foundation, Got Your 6, and the Yellow Ribbon Fund (all veteran support organizations), according to The Washington Post. In short, he is an important supporter of the military and veterans, and he deserves our forgiveness for this episode. He has endured the requisite public flogging, and stands admonished.
As the old saying goes, “there but for the grace of God go I.” We should all be a little more cautious in telling our tales, and remember that people believe what we tell them, until they have a reason not to. That is not a gift that we should squander foolishly. I, for one, am ready to move on, and I am sure a chastened Brian Williams will go forward humbled and likely never to embellish another war story again.
(Featured image courtesy of Matthias Clamer)