Saturday, July 11, 2015

Lies, Stories, and Brian Williams

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.
II Timothy 2:15

I think it was Elie Wiesel who said that when an ancient rabbi was asked why God made human beings, he answered, “Because he loves stories.”

Of course, I could google that and find out whether or not Wiesel ever said that and I could probably find the original source. I might also discover, though I think it is unlikely, that I just made it up.

It certainly sounds like something an ancient rabbi would have said. And I have no doubt that God loves stories. That’s why we have the Bible. It really is “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

All of this is by way of saying that I came to the Brian Williams story with a sympathetic frame of mind. He is a good storyteller. And I love a good story. I love to hear a good story and I love to tell good stories. And anyone who can tell a story knows that a slavish devotion to the facts can ruin a good story. Sometimes the facts can even get in the way of the truth.

One of the ways in which preaching (and all public speaking) has changed dramatically in the last quarter century is determined by the ease with which facts can be checked. In the age of print, it might take days or even weeks to check on a story. In the digital age, those days have been reduced to seconds. A few years ago you could do your fact checking as soon as you got home to your computer and could get an internet connection. The lap top and the expansion of wireless connections reduced the time even further. Today, with a smart phone we can check things in real time.

Of course, all of that internet research has its downside. There is an almost unlimited supply of data at our fingertips, but lots of it is phony. We used to say that the camera doesn’t lie. Now we know that although the camera may not lie, the picture might. Almost anything can be photoshopped at home so that it’s hard to know what is real and what is not.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past six months, you know that Brian Williams has had a swift and sudden fall from grace when it was discovered that he had lied about an incident that took place during the early weeks of the Iraq war in 2003 when he was reporting from Iraq and imbedded, as many journalists were, in an army unit.

In a Nightly News broadcast on March 26, 2003, Williams reported the dramatic events of the day:

"We are one of four Chinook helicopters flying north this morning, third in line. As we head toward the drop point the Iraqi landscape looks quiet. We can see a convoy of American troop carriers and supply vehicles heading north....Down below some civilians, seemingly happy to see us.  But these soldiers have heard reports of Iraqis in civilian clothes firing on American troops. Indeed, just before we’re able to make our drop, radio traffic makes clear this routine mission is running into trouble. We quickly make our drop and then turn southwest. Suddenly, without knowing why, we learned we’ve been ordered to land in the desert. On the ground, we learn the Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky."

Ten years later, when he retold the story to David Letterman, he made some major revisions that made it even more dramatic. "We were in some helicopters,” he said. “What we didn’t know was, we were north of the invasion. We were the northernmost Americans in Iraq. We were going to drop some bridge portions across the Euphrates so the Third Infantry could cross on them. Two of the four helicopters were hit, by ground fire, including the one I was in, RPG and AK-47."

It began to unravel on January 30, 2015, when he told about how he had met one of the soldiers who had served in Iraq. "The story actually started with a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq when the helicopter we were traveling in was forced down after being hit by an RPG, Our traveling NBC News team was rescued, surrounded and kept alive by an armored mechanized platoon from the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry." One of the soldiers who was there disputed Williams’ account. That led to an internal investigation at NBC News, which led to a six month suspension without pay and Williams’ eventual reassignment to MSNBC.

As it turns out, that was not the only time that he took liberties with the truth. He said that he was at the Brandenburg Gate the night the Berlin Wall came down, when he actually got there a day later. He said that he watched a man commit suicide in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he really only heard about it. There’s more, but it doesn’t really matter.

Journalism and preaching are very different forms of communication. But each depends on “rightly handling the word of truth.” And in both preaching and journalism, you can’t change the facts to make yourself look better without compromising the integrity of the message.

So Brian Williams lost a half a year’s salary. That’s a lot of money. Reportedly that would amount to around five million dollars. Putting that differently, in spite of being found to have repeatedly misrepresented the facts in his reporting, always making himself look better, he made five million dollars.

There are other lies and distortions on television that are much more damaging than the ones that Brian Williams told, but that’s really no excuse.

Pastors have lost their jobs for doing what Brian Williams did (with much smaller audiences). Putting a positive light on that, maybe it just means that the church values the truth more than the media does.

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