The Tragedy of Brian

Alas, poor Williams! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
bored me with the eventide news a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those lips that spoke the truth I know
not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your
gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar?
(with apologies to W. Shakespeare)

NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was “suspended” by the network last week for misleading the public about his personal experiences covering the war in Iraq. He had reported recently that he had been a passenger in a Chinook helicopter that was hit by RPG fire. He has since explained that he wasn’t in the helicopter that got hit, but instead in a helicopter flying behind the one that got shot at. It has also been reported, however, that Williams was not in any helicopter that was part of the formation that was fired on.

In his apology, broadcast before the suspension, Williams confessed that he “made a mistake in remembering” the event, and tried to soft-pedal his error by noting that the event happened 12 years ago and by saying that the report was “an effort to honor and thank a veteran” who protected him. Whether Williams was lying about what happened, exaggerating his personal experience in the event, or having an episode of mistaken memory, Williams probably could have come up with a better way to honor and thank a veteran than to inject a story about himself as the damsel in distress.

In many ways, the tragedy of Brian is a classic tale of hubris leading to a mighty fall. As a news anchor, Williams was marketed to the public as a trusted voice in the news business. No more. It is unlikely that he will ever be able to restore his reputation.

The incident prompted David Brooks to write a column that was not so much about the person who commits the error, mistake, exaggeration or deceit as about the public response to scandal. In this era of amplified outrage made possible by the Internet, any public person who commits these sins is susceptible to immediate ridicule that is often way out of proportion to the offense. In Brooks’ words, “The Internet, the most impersonal of mediums, erupts with contempt and mockery.” Brooks calls ours a barbaric “coliseum culture” that has no mercy when it comes to the disclosure of human failings in public figures. Brooks suggests that “the civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling.”

Forgiveness is a process. Brooks identifies four phases of forgiveness: mercy, judgment, penitence and reconciliation. Little mercy has been shown for Brian Williams by the public community, and yet, a current of judgment and penitence must flow and carve its course before a forgiving community can achieve reconciliation with him–a restoration of trust. Williams has yet to get out in front of the process, to re-evaluate, to set a course for his future that may bring him back from exile. If Williams wants to continue to work as a reporter, then he should be a reporter and resist the blinding spotlight of news anchor, even if it is offered to him by the network when his six-month suspension comes to an end. For the rest of us, we have become a community that is too quick to condemn without mercy, a community where forgiveness has become a strange and uncool concept. Being quick to condemn human failings in others, we have become blind to our own failings as a community–failings that may only be righted by each one of us deciding to step away from resentment and anger and toward healing the social fabric instead of tearing it apart.

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