Commentary Magazine


Brian Williams, His Fall from Grace, and the Need for Grace

I understand why NBC News suspended its anchor Brian Williams for six months without pay. His offense was serious, the news division’s credibility is hemorrhaging, and the story was growing rather than receding. It was dominating our conversation, to the point that even local and national sports radio programs were devoting time to it. Something clearly needed to be done. All things taken together, the penalty seems reasonable–tough, but reasonable–to me.

I’ve never met Mr. Williams and I don’t watch NBC Nightly News. But from what I can piece together, it appears as if his vanity and thirst for celebrity got the better of him. Stories that were at first embellished became, over time, fictionalized. He seems to have wanted his life to appear more interesting and more heroic than it was. Once the soldiers he flew with exposed his my-helicopter-was-shot-by-an-RPG-in-Iraq account as false, his career imploded. Within days the man who was seemingly on top of the journalist world has seen his life “shattered,” in the words of a close friend.

I can see why. Mr. Williams has become the object of unremitting ridicule, especially on social media. Like many others, I saw tweets mocking him–the pictures of Brian Williams at the Last Supper, next to Lincoln, on the moon, at the Battle of Thermopyle–and sent them to people I know. They seemed clever to me. But now, days later, I have a somewhat different view.

The reason is that responsible criticism of Brian Williams is one thing; non-stop derision and ridicule is something else. We’ve seen plenty of both. But the overall effect of the commentary about him–when you combine it all together–isn’t to hold him accountable; it’s to crush him. To shatter him. To make him a national joke. That would be painful for anyone–and I suspect it’s particularly painful for a man like Williams, who obviously cares very much what people, particularly people in the political class, think of him.

I don’t have any brilliant insights into when one crosses the line from legitimate criticism to unbecoming snideness to casual cruelty. All I can tell you is that for most of us, our failures, including our character failures, are not on full public display. They’re not focused on, dissected, talked about on national television and made the punch line of endless jokes. If they were, it would be a rather searing experience.

I get that Brian Williams is a public figure and he has benefited enormously from his fame. But he’s also a human being. And his sin–pride, vanity, the insatiable desire to be thought of as cooler and better and more impressive than we actually are–is fairly widespread, especially in the world he inhabits. That doesn’t lead everyone to embellish and mislead like Williams did, of course; but most of us have, in recounting our achievements and experiences, made them appear in a better light than they deserve.

I believe in accountability, and I hope I’m not downplaying the seriousness of what Mr. Williams has done. And obviously if it turns out that he’s misled us on more occasions than we know, the consequences will increase. But there is such a thing as piling on; and schadenfreude, while in some circumstances an understandable response, is never an admirable one. Much of the delight people seem to be taking in the fall of Brian Williams doesn’t have anything to do with him (he seems to be a pleasant enough individual); it seems to have to do with his position in life and success.

So I for one hope that the Brian Williams story begins to ebb, that no other transgressions are found, and that he’s given a second chance and makes the most of it. Often the best stories have to do with repair and redemption.

The writer Philip Yancey once said that the church’s mission was to be a haven of grace in this world of ungrace. We’ve seen plenty of the latter in our political culture. We all might be better served if we saw just a bit more of the former. Because one day you and I may need grace extended to us, just as Brian Williams needs it extended to him.

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5 Responses to “Brian Williams, His Fall from Grace, and the Need for Grace”

  1. JOHN BURKE says:

    But you ARE downplaying the seriousness of Williams’ transgression. Fortunately, few prominent journalists invent stories, but surely when one of the most famous, powerful and handsomely paid does so, he deserves every barb he gets It would not have taken superhuman effort to avoid his fate. Just elementary honesty.

  2. KENNETH RICK says:

    Coming a mere ten years after the disgrace of Dan Rather at NBC, the Brian Williams affair should be seen in the context of an ongoing failure of network news to live up to its responsibilities to impartially and faithfully report the news. While it may be gracious to extend to Williams a second chance, his reporting will henceforth be tainted with doubt which he himself has cast upon his career.

  3. JUDITH SEARS says:

    I agree with John Burke. We are to blame if we’re gloating while believing that we don’t have any faults but that’s beside the point.

    My greatest fear is that Williams’ lies will be overlooked, dropped down the memory hole, and, eventually, he’ll be welcomed back and the standards of journalism will continue to decline. Next time only a 3-day suspension and the lies will have to have been much bigger.

    This isn’t, finally, about Williams. It’s about the desperate need for honesty and standards, especially in the media. If the mainstream media doesn’t get spanked – and that will mean the punishment of more than one nice guy and gal – how will there ever be an improvement of their performance?

    For Williams as a private citizen, I hope he can find peace and reconcile himself to himself. With a $10 million salary for the last several years, I imagine he can find some consolation, at least.


      Brian Williams won’t be back. I’d bet my last buck on it. NBC can’t be having a a six month circus of revolving Tom, Dick and Harrietts in the anchor chair. If I had to guess they’ll settle on someone fairly quickly. I don’t watch the nets news but Lester Holt seems like a reasonable choice. I mean, you need to be able to read a TelePrompTer without looking shifty and Lester Holt is a pretty familiar face. (I watch him when he does those Dateline: Murder Porn shows.) Another big plus that nobody’s mentioning, of course, is the black guy factor–but not toooo black. ABC and CBS anchors are distinctly lacking in melanin. Since NBC’s sister station MSNBC is ALL RACE–ALL THE TIME, the hiring of Holt will turn into a permanent change fairly soon (and only a disastrous crash of ratings will put the only black anchor in jeopardy.) It’s a pretty win-win situation. Al Sharpton can’t complain and the rest of the racial bean counters at the network can run around all day crowing, “He’s black, he’s black, did we mention Lester Holt is black? Oh…happy…happy…joy…joy!

  4. PAUL FREEDMAN says:

    Exhibit A (Gov. Romney’ past and almost runs for office and Jeb Bush’s candidacy being exhibits B and C) why the GOP is fated to lose to whatever palooka the left wing installs in the DemForPrez chair for 2016.

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