Brian Williams: A Cautionary Tale

“If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.”
~ Mark Twain

Brian Williams has changed the way I talk and the way I write, forever. The embattled anchorman’s plight is a cautionary tale for us all.

Unless you live under a rock you’ve heard that Williams falsely claimed his Chinook helicopter came under enemy fire in Iraq in 2003. In reality, he landed an hour after the aircraft that was actually hit. Williams was never under fire. He embellished the story on several occasions (and maybe other stories too) to make himself look a little grittier – a little more courageous than a guy sitting behind a desk with makeup on. He lied.

As this news was breaking, I happened to be writing a blog about my childhood. I was recalling stories from thirty, thirty-five, even forty years ago. I realized as I was writing that I was adding details I wasn’t completely sure about just to jazz up the stories. I stopped and asked myself: Do I know this to be true? And it changed my writing. When I get my book back from my editor, I will carefully pour over every word to make sure the stories are not just powerful, but powerfully true.

When I was a news reporter, I interviewed President Clinton. At least that’s what I told people for years. The truth is I covered a campaign stop he made before he was president. After he wrapped up his speech, I ran to his motorcade where I blocked his exit so that he had no choice but to answer a question or two before being swept away to his next stop. It’s not a lie to say I interviewed him, but the details of our “interview” are less sexy than my storytelling. In fact, I used to proudly tell people that I’ve interviewed three U.S. Presidents. The truth is I asked a couple of questions of President George H.W. Bush and a couple more of CANDIDATES Clinton and George W. Bush.

We do this every day. Our memories are not clear. Or they are clear, but we edit our stories so that the boring stuff lands on the cutting room floor. Brian Williams knew full well what he was saying wasn’t accurate, but when he first started spinning his stories we didn’t live in the age of ubiquitous smartphones, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. As the years went by and his celebrity grew, the line of what’s fact and what’s fiction blurred, likely even to him.

Let’s all grow from this.  Let’s work harder to be more authentic, even if it takes a little of the shine off of us.  The apostle Peter wrote, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” Humble may not make headlines, but in a world filled with lies and distortion, it’s nice to know that I can control the story I live AND the stories I tell.