CONFLATION JUBILATION: Whatever unhappy fate ultimately befalls NBC news anchor Brian Williams, I will remain eternally grateful he managed to elevate the otherwise obscure smarty-pants verb form — “to conflate” — into an all-purpose, one-size-fits-all weasel word. Williams, much like actor Alec Baldwin, comes across both as an arrogant douche and genuinely hilarious. It’s an impressive trick. But not nearly impressive enough. As we all know, Williams got busted by the military publication Stars and Stripes for regaling the world with nonchalantly heroic tales about making an emergency landing after his military-transport helicopter was hit by an enemy RPG during the early days of war on Iraq. As everyone also knows, it never happened. Williams’s helicopter wasn’t touched. The one in front of him was. To Williams’s credit, he apologized profusely. Not to his credit, he blamed the “fog of history,” which, as he explained, caused him to “conflate” things. This ranks as a close second to the now infamous “Twinkie defense.” If and when I’m ever late paying my taxes, I’ll be blaming the “fog of history.” And when the IRS accuses me of lying, I’ll conveniently remember that I misremembered. I was only “conflating” what I had done with what I thought I did.
To conflate, in case you wondered, comes from the Latin meaning “to fart together.” (“Con” denotes “with,” and the “flate” has the same roots as “flatulence.”) It refers to the inevitable olfactory confusion that ensues when attempting to tease out one person’s odor from another’s. As with many in the news business, the episode has left me whiplashed. The profession — if you can call it that — is already in serious disrepute. Do we need a high-profile celebrity news anchor to make like the Titanic and crash into his own delusionary iceberg? The good news, of course, is that Williams was brought down by other reporters, the proverbial ink-stained wretches. The bad news? He’d been repeating that shaggy-dog story for many years before getting caught.
Not to overstate the obvious, but if George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Condoleezza Rice could drag us into the wrong war against the wrong enemy at the wrong time by lying ��— and no, they didn’t “conflate” anything — about weapons of mass destruction, do we really care what whoppers Brian Williams tells?
For the record, I do not conflate. Maybe if I made $13 million a year like Williams did, I would be allowed the luxury. Until then, I’ll resign myself to screwing up. Making mistakes. Dumb ones. Sloppy ones. And recently, a whole lot of them. Allow me to enumerate. In the past two weeks, I reported that Tony Denunzio was found not guilty by a Santa Maria jury back in 2013 for driving while intoxicated. In fact, the jury was hung on Denunzio’s guilt, and the judge declared a mistrial. I reported the Santa Barbara City Council approved spending $250,000 to hire a consultant to study a better way to post directional signs — not street signs — throughout downtown so visitors could figure out where to go. In fact, it was only $91,000. Likewise, I wrote that a cutting-edge affordable housing project slated for the corner of Haley and Salsipuedes streets would cost $30 million to build. In fact, it’s half that amount. I reported that City Hall offered to spend $500,000 to help restore the Goleta Slough to offset any environmental damage inflicted on aquatic life by the proposed desalination plant. In fact, it was the Devereux Slough. A couple of weeks ago, the headline of this column was “Estoy Charlie.” Any other gabacho would have known I should have written “Yo Soy” instead. And last week, I stated that the shift from at-large to district elections in 1874 was a plot by the pinche hueros to limit whatever political heft was then enjoyed by the Latino population. I have since learned the actual historical facts are ambiguous. There’s little record of actual intent. By 1874, Santa Barbara’s Latinos had no heft left to limit. That being said, the number of Latinos elected went from a few to none with the advent of district elections. My point — to steal the disclaimer now made at the end of all movies — no animals were harmed in the making of these mistakes. No humans, either. Just my pride. Most importantly, no wars were waged under false pretenses as a result. That I can learn to live with.
If Ronald Wilson Reagan were still alive, he would have turned 104 last week. Given he was a part-time Santa Barbara resident — and we have a downtown museum named after him — last week was a propitious time for Brian Williams’s conflator-gration. No doubt Reagan could relate. In 1983, Reagan recounted to the Prime Minister of Israel how he had filmed at one of the Nazi concentration camps shortly after its liberation. Reagan, it turned out, never left the United States during WWII. But in Reagan’s mind, the truth was always a fungible thing. During one televised address to the American people, he flatly denied accusations that his administration ever sold weapons to Iran — then part of the Axis of Evil — while using the proceeds to fund the Nicaraguan anti-communist rebels despite unequivocal Congressional prohibitions against doing so. “These charges are utterly false,” Reagan declared. Not long afterward, he was back in front of the cameras, this time parsing the subtle difference between fact and fiction. In “my heart and my best intentions,” he explained, what he had said before still remained true. But, he was forced to acknowledge, “the facts and the evidence” told him it was otherwise. The fact is Reagan got away with murder. But who wants to hear that now? Today, Reagan is the good old days. When many of us now question whether such days ever existed, best simply to say happy birthday and blow out the candles. Maybe in the meantime, Brian Williams can land a job with the New England Patriots, helping them conflate their footballs.