The Hypocritical Degradation of Brian Williams

Tearing down Brian Williams isn't about ethics—it's about jealously, catharsis and the rage of the creative underclass

(Photo: Getty Images)
(Photo: Getty Images)

Oscar Wilde put it well: “In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press.”

It is with some sad irony to see this weapon of torture now pointed at one of the most famous newsmen in America, Brian Williams. His crime? Not corruption, not bias, not lazily reporting a critical story or outright plagiarizing it, but exaggerating and embellishing the account of his time as an embedded reporter in Iraq—you know, that war zone in the sweltering desert where everyone hates us and most of us were thankful we didn’t have to go.

No one is rushing to defend the guy right now and that’s sort of my point. So I’ll do it. Because it needs to be done.

Not only because I promise that you’ve exaggerated a story in your own life. Not only because those who have spent any time in the public eye should have an extra understanding of Mr. Williams’ predicament, because they’ve experienced the other confusing part of memory: When your own narrative is mixed with a public narrative. Cleanly separating and diligently observing the differences between the two is exhausting. Anyone who has ever had their bio read in front of them and didn’t stop to correct any generous mistakes should understand this. Anyone who has seen a positive error in an article about them or on their Wikipedia page and just thought, “Is that even worth getting into?” should have an idea about how narrative-inflation happens.

offthemedia-1I’m not saying the evidence isn’t there. Mr. Williams did steadily exaggerate his story over time, going from “that Chinook ahead of us was almost blown out of the sky” to “being hit by an RPG.” His recent apology and original self-suspension admit this. And now additional questions remain about similarly harrowing tales from his personal history. The operating theory being: When someone gets caught lying, it’s never the first time he or she lied.

What is most appalling to me, however, is the glee with which we’ve decided—both as a media and as readers—to take this man down. Even reporters here at the Observer don’t seem to be immune from it. It’s not enough to point out the problems with his reporting, it’s not enough to set the record straight, Brian Williams must be cashiered and humiliated in front of us in a thousand articles, Facebook posts and Internet memes.

These acts of ritualized destruction are known by anthropologists as “degradation ceremonies.” Their purpose is to allow the public to single out and denounce one of its members. To lower their status or expel them from the group. To collectively take out our anger at them by stripping them of their dignity. It is a we vs. you scenario with deep biological roots. By the end of it the disgraced person’s status is cemented as “not one of us.” Everything about them is torn down and rewritten.

Sociologist Gerald Cromer once noted that the decline of public executions coincided almost exactly with the rise of the mass newspaper. It goes back further than that. The burning passion behind these flurries, William Hazlitt wrote in his classic essay, “On the Pleasure of Hating,” “carries us back to the feuds, the heart-burnings, the havoc, the dismay, the wrongs, and the revenge of a barbarous age and people.” In the throes of such a frenzy, he writes, “the wild beast resumes its sway within us.”

Today, blogs are our representatives in these degradation ceremonies. It is clear to me that the online media cycle is not a process for developing or revealing important truths but for performing a kind of cultural catharsis. Blogs level these accusations on the behalf of the “outraged public”—or so they say. How dare you hold yourself up in front of us as a fallible human being instead of as a dimension-less caricature, they shout. If you don’t feel shame, then we will make you feel shame. The audience clicks to enjoy the destruction and pain.

Today, blogs are our representatives in these degradation ceremonies. It is clear to me that the online media cycle is not a process for developing or revealing important truths but for performing a kind of cultural catharsis. Blogs level these accusations on the behalf of the “outraged public”—or so they say. 

O.K., we get it, his story about a helicopter ride in Iraq was not as dangerous as we thought. He didn’t have dysentery during Katrina. Now what? We go back to pageview trolling as usual? That’s what should bother us most about this recent scandal. Not the lack of empathy or tolerance for the indulgence of ego, it’s that the people most loudly leading the charge are well … completely and regularly full of shit.

Really, Gawker, tell me why getting the story wrong bothers you so much—it clearly doesn’t matter when you write inaccurate, biased, or ridiculous stories. Earlier this month when I revealed how the stunt about shipping your enemies glitter managed to trick nearly every media outlet in the country, most readers were disappointed to see how the media really worked. But not most reporters—several, including writers for the AP, the Guardian, Los Angeles Times, Daily Dot—went to great lengths on social media to explain why they didn’t feel bad for helping dupe the public. One writer admitted in the comments that he knew it was a piece of viral nonsense from the start, but published it anyway. Same happened yesterday, when I revealed to one reporter how Peter Young tricked them into writing about him. No accountability, just excuses.

I’ll take it a step further: I think part of the reason today’s media seizes on “safe” targets like we are now, whether it’s Jonah Lehrer or Fareed Zakaria, is not because they care but because they think by making a lot of noise they can distract the public from the misinformation they themselves pump out on a daily basis. They’re guilty of journalistic crimes that Brian Williams would probably rather die than commit. But by finding a scapegoat, by tearing someone else down, they hope to sate an audience they only barely respect, and fear will turn on them as the real problem if not distracted.

These are writers who measure the quality of their own reporting by how many views it gets, not whether it’s accurate, informative or important. These are writers who rarely even pick up the phone or send an email in the course of investigating a story, let alone get up and travel to a war zone or disaster area to see things first-hand. And I imagine if given the opportunity, most would come close to killing for a shot at TV or network news money. They’d be Bill O’Reilly-level egomaniacs in 20 minutes if they were remotely talented enough to justify the gig.

That’s the thing about the “rage of the creative underclass,” it has nothing to do with the stories at hand and everything to do with the people writing and reporting. They aren’t trying to teach us some lesson in Brian Williams’ case or in any other instance about the tragic rise and fall of public men. That is not their function. Their degradation is mere spectacle that blogs use to sublimate the general anxieties of their readers and for themselves. To make us feel better by hurting others.

And if we’re not getting anything out of it, and nobody learns anything from it, then I don’t see how you can call blogging anything other than a digital blood sport.

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.

He’s also put together this list of 15 books that you’ve probably never heard of that will alter your worldview, help you excel at your career and teach you how to live a better life.

The Hypocritical Degradation of Brian Williams