Here’s what gets me about the Brian Williams affair. It’s not that his memory conflated events, or that he misremembered in the direction of self-inflation, because that’s the natural bent of a gargantuan ego. What gets me is NBC’s role in all this. According to a source quoted in the New York Post’s Page Six, “Tom Brokaw and [former NBC News President] Steve Capus knew this was a false story for a long time and have been extremely uncomfortable with it.” According to the story, “NBC News execs had counseled him to stop telling the tale.”
Meanwhile, in last year’s promotional videos for Williams’ tenth anniversary as anchor of the Nightly News, Williams was hailed for the very strengths of character these NBC higher-ups apparently knew he lacked.
“Values aren’t like fashion,” intones the narrator in one of these spots, over slow-mo shots of Williams in all his heroic, full-hearted glory. “They’re permanent, bedrock things, like integrity, experience, compassion.” (And that’s just one of eight. Nevermind the ones that talk about “trust” and “battle scars.”)
I don’t expect much from TV news. I know it’s show business, and I know show business is all about appearance, and the appearance of virtue is as good as the real thing. But the fact that NBC can produce and air these promos, fully expecting that their audience—us—will swallow them without a wince, shows that we’ve got some waking up to do. Not so much to the fallibility of memory or the hazards of egotism (though it would be good to become more aware of those, too), but to this game of smoke and mirrors that cynically manipulates us into believing what we hope to be true about the world, instead of seeing what is actually true about it.
And what is that? It’s not that virtuous people do not exist in the world (although, in truth, very few of them make ten million dollars a year and live in a social world in which everyone’s always telling them how great they are). It’s that public personas are products, and they are bait for other products, and the parties that dress up all these products aren’t interested one whit in “integrity” or “compassion.” We think we already know this, but if we really knew it, if we really knew their mawkish ads were bullshit, they’d never make them in the first place.