How Should we Understand Brian Williams’s “Embellishment”?

The story of Brian Williams’s embellishment/fabrication/misremembering of his helicopter ride during the early days of the Iraqi invasion is still evolving, but many seem willing to cast final judgement on the Nightly News anchor and managing editor. Variety already has a piece up about Williams’s likely successors, Gawker thinks his “entire career [is] implod[ing]” before our very eyes, and an “ally” of Hillary Clinton’s has been distancing the presidential candidate’s own wartime memory issue from Williams’s. I’m not ready to despise Brian Williams for what we understand of this story so far, nor am I willing to say he’s committed a professional journalistic transgression that merits his resignation or firing. Here’s why. Please tear my reasoning apart in the comments section.

Where’s the motive?

I’ve liked and respected Brian Williams’s attitude and personal story for as long as I’ve known his name. I won’t change my mind about that until I see some solid evidence of a malicious motive for this behavior. What could this guy possibly be after? NBC has spent the past year celebrating Williams’s ten years as anchor, he is regularly ranked as one of the most trusted people in America (the list is pretty disheartening, but that’s beside the point), and Nightly News is consistently the most-viewed network news program. So, again, what does Brian Williams have to gain from this lie? I think it’s far more likely that he made a very public mistake, and I find that forgivable. Which brings me to my next point…

This mistake was a personal one.

Personal mistakes can have profound professional consequences, but that doesn’t mean we should conceive of personal errors in professional terms. Brian Williams’s actual reporting on the events in Iraq was – as far as we know – honest, which is actually the source of this controversy. I don’t think an erroneous story told over the PA at a Rangers game or on David Letterman’s couch is the same as one told on a news program. Yet many journalists and commentators are referring to Lara Logan and Dan Rather this week in the same breath as Brian Williams. Logan and Rather made mistakes while doing their jobs. Brian Williams made a mistake while having a job.

That isn’t to say that NBC lacks grounds to fire Williams. But those grounds are fiduciary. NBC is a business, and one of their chief properties might be (logically or not) irreparably damaged. The best way to begin to repair the damage to that property might be to remove its most public representative. We shouldn’t pretend, however, that such a decision is rooted in concerns about ethics or the quality of journalism.