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The Truthiness of Brian Williams’s War Tale

Identifying Hyperbole, False Memory, and Lies


The fame buzzards are having a hardy meal on Brian Williams’s professional carcass. The 55-year-old anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News lied, by his own admission, about an incident that occurred, or actually didn’t occur, when he was on assignment in Iraq in 2003. He has been yanked off the air for at least six months.

His actions once again focused national attention on the never-ending debate on the ethics and credibility of news reporting whether on NBC News, which is seen by over 9 million people, or the local newspaper, which is read by far fewer.

Ben Bycel
Click to enlarge photo

Ben Bycel

The Brian Williams debacle has also pushed to the forefront the ethical issue of what is truthiness (see G.W. Bush and Steve Colbert) in our everyday lives. Yes, you and me and everyone except maybe Mother Teresa (though I heard she fibbed a bit about her age) lies from time to time.

Most of us would rarely ever admit to lying. We make distinctions between our lies and those other people tell. We may refer to our non-truthful statements as exaggerations, embellishments, white lies, false memory, conflations, puffing, hyperbole, misremembering, or over-statements.

Some of us even explain away our lies in a far more esoteric and scientific manner. That’s what New York Times columnist Tara Parker-Pope did in an article defending Brian Williams.

“The truth is our memories can deceive us — and they often do. Numerous scientific studies show that memories can fade, shift, and distort over time. Not only can our real memories become unwittingly altered and embellished, but entirely false memories can be incorporated into our memory bank, embedded so deeply we have become convinced they are real and actually happened.”

Thank you, Ms. Parker-Pope. I now understand why I clearly remember years ago scoring the winning touchdown for the University of Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. Oops, sorry. I just had a memory shift. It wasn’t actually at the Rose Bowl; it was at the L.A. Coliseum.

I think the “Liar as Victim of False Memory” defense is gobbledygook, unless there are clear neurological problems. I do not, however, think that we should react to all lies in the same manner. An analysis of the effects of a lie and the appropriate response are far more complicated.

Sissela Bok’s books — Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life and Secrets: On the Ethics of Concealment and Revelation — offer great insight into the complex issue of lying.

Sam Harris, author of the excellent book Lying, noted in a recent NPR interview: “People lie so that others will form beliefs that are not true. The more consequential the beliefs — that is, the more a person’s well-being demands a correct understanding of the world or of other people’s opinions — the more consequential the lie.”

Harris gave numerous examples of lies that are inconsequential. This was my favorite: “When asked, ‘How are you?’ most of us reflexively say that we are well, understanding the question to be merely a greeting, rather than an invitation to discuss our career disappointments, our marital troubles, or the condition of our bowels.”

Harris goes on to make this distinction: “Elisions of this kind can be forms of deception, but they are not quite lies. We may skirt the truth at such moments, but we do not deliberately manufacture falsehood or conceal important facts to the detriment of others.”

Using the Harris test, I’ve made up some scenarios for you to determine whether a lie is harmful and whether it should be punished in some form. (And I’ve provided my responses below.)

1) The guy on the next barstool tells you at great length he once was a promising pianist. Punishable lie? Yes. No.

2) Your Realtor tells you in writing that the owner of a house you want to buy is so anxious to sell that he’ll drop the asking price. Actually, she knows that’s not true but hopes you’ll love the house and pay the asking price. The owner refuses to lower his price. Now you think he’s bluffing, and you refuse to pay his asking price. He sells the house to someone else for full price. Punishable lie? Yes. No.

3) You’re looking for some gold earrings for your sweetheart (male or female) for Valentine’s Day. The jeweler shows you some earrings. and says they are 18 carat gold. They’re not. Punishable lie? Yes. No.

4) You have promised your college-age daughter a car if she passes all her classes with at least a “B.” While never discussed, you believed she would be a full-time student. At the end of the school year she tells you that she passed all her classes with a “B” or better. What she doesn’t tell you is that she dropped half her classes — the ones she was failing. Punishable lie? Yes. No.

5) You ask an employee to finish some work before he goes home. He says, “No problem; it will be done by 6 p.m.” You go home. The employee leaves for the evening without doing the work. He comes in early the next morning and completes the task before you arrive. You find out he lied. Punishable lie? Yes. No.

My answers:

1) Barstool pianist: Who cares what the guy said? His lie did you no harm and probably entertained you.

2) Full price on house: Believing the Realtor’s advice cost you that house. Fire her, and report her to the Board of Realtors.

3) Gold earrings: His lie caused you to spend money. He’s just committed, among other things, fraud. Call the police.

4) Car for grades: Your daughter knew your expectation was that she take a full course load. Now she can continue to ride her bike.

5) Employee work: Maybe this falls under the “No harm, no foul doctrine.” On the other hand, you may want to advise him to tell you the truth at all times.

This week two outstanding journalists died, David Carr of the New York Times and Bob Simon of CBS. The quote below was written about Carr by his colleague A.O. Scott in the Times, but it can equally be applied to Simon. If we had more journalists such as Carr and Simon, lying in the media would not be an issue.

David was always hungry for stories. He was a collector of personalities and anecdotes, a shrewd and compassionate judge of character. A warrior for the truth.”

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to streetethics@independent.com.

Read more Street Ethics columns here.



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