Liar, liar: keeping newscasters truthful

Of the myriad human behaviors that have ever taken place on earth, the act of lying has probably happened the most. Whether it’s a fib, a little white lie, or a subterfuge, all of it counts as lying, no matter the name. We all do it—some for trivial reasons, others for reasons deemed imperative. Nevertheless, despite the obvious ubiquity of lying as a natural human act, public figures are excoriated for it. Of course, that’s not to say that relatively unknown people don’t face great consequences for dishonesty (think of the penalties for academic dishonesty at Colby); however, the negative publicity that celebrities undergo when they lie is amplified a hundredfold due to their fame.

Of course, it goes without saying that public figures are subject to a level of scrutiny that is inherent in their public work. For example, if you’re an obscure candidate running for President in 2016, you better expect to have all sorts of people scrutinizing the niceties of your life. People will work exhaustively to uncover details that are either unseemly or incongruous with what you have said to be true about yourself.

In that vein, NBC anchor and journalist Brian Williams was recently suspended for six months without pay because he flat-out lied about events that took place aboard a military helicopter in Iraq in 2003. Essentially, he fabricated much of the story when he told the public about the actual event. Recently, due to backlash from soldiers privy to the details of the actual events, Williams recanted his story and apologized. Regardless, he was punished.

I’m glad that he owned up to what he did, but I doubt that NBC decided to levy punitive measures against Williams on moral grounds. In trying to deconstruct the dialectics of celebrity lying and public shaming, I have come to the conclusion that Williams was punished because (1) he used his professional platform to perpetuate an abhorrent lie that would garner personal prestige and (2) his actions were especially antithetical to his profession—which is fundamentally concerned with veracity. From a business standpoint, the brand and profits of NBC stand to suffer if their anchors can’t be trusted to impart the truth. Thus, NBC punished Brian Williams to make a statement about its steadfast professional fidelity and to save face.

Concurrently, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly is also facing criticism because he purportedly lied. Some contend that O’Reilly deliberately misrepresented his involvement in an important event he discusses in his book Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot (2012). Apparently, O’Reilly lied about witnessing the suicide of a friend of Lee Harvey Oswald, as an uncovered recording from the 1970s demonstrates. O’Reilly has vehemently denied the accusations. Unlike Williams, the opacity of O’Reilly’s situation and the lack of indisputable evidence against him have protected him from a level of criticism akin to that of Williams.

Still, the fact that both of these figures have faced criticism to a great degree is morally justified, hypocritical and misguided all at the same time—weird, I know. From a moral standpoint, lying is frowned upon, especially if you’re in the limelight. From an objective standpoint, it’s pretty normal given that we all do it because of a multiplicity of reasons, and that’s why shaming public figures for their own dishonesty is technically hypocritical.

Yet, the media (and as a result, all of us) hold people like Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly to higher standards with such ferocity (though the latter is given more latitude because he’s part of the demagogical conservative media).  It makes me wonder why some high-level politicians aren’t subject to similar scrutiny given their questionable record regarding “honesty.” Alas, I am forced into the conclusion that the media as a whole isn’t unified in their treatment of public-figure dishonesty—that’s why Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly are experiencing different levels of scrutiny and punishment for their dishonesty at this point in time.

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