I feel sorry for Brian Williams. Not because I think war stories deserve embellishment, or that famous men should be able to tell tall tales on television.
Instead, I have sympathy because I know what it feels like to be put through the public wringer for this particular sin: telling the American public a story that isn’t exactly true, and pretending that it is.
My turn was three years ago. I told a story on public radio about visiting an Apple factory in China, and reported details that I had not seen myself as if I had. I knew it was wrong. Even before I was caught, I remember walking around my apartment in the dead of night, terrified, my world collapsing. Eventually day itself seemed as dark as night. I didn’t sleep for weeks.
Clearly Brian Williams and I play very different roles. He is a famous broadcaster who moonlights on SNL and slow-jams the news. I’m a storyteller and monologist who works in the theater. But I recognize that in many ways what Brian Williams has done is the same thing I did: adding the first person, inserting yourself into stories in order to heighten and intensify their telling. This is dramatization, and it’s an integral component in great storytelling. Where it becomes a problem all depends what kind of narrative authority the storyteller wants to claim.
I used NGO reports to make a work of theater that reflects labor conditions—there’s a reason people don’t read NGO reports, and it’s because they’re dreadfully boring and lack a dramatic arc. Brian Williams wanted to have a pithy war anecdote, and no one wants to hear a war story about a journalist who arrived approximately an hour after a rocket attack.
I’ve learned the hard way that journalism is a form of storytelling that sets as its goal the unbiased presentation of truth. We all know that’s impossible, but it doesn’t change the vital nature of that charge: Details matter in journalism because all stories are fiction. It’s only the difficult, piecemeal work of dedicated journalists that permits us to believe we can trust what we read, watch, and listen to.
I know that now because I broke the rules. I took a work I’d made in the theater and allowed This American Life to air it. I told myself that I needed to do this so the larger story of the brutal labor practices of our largest corporations would be heard in a way that connected as it had in the theater.
What I didn’t understand is that when you assume narrative authority and you break the rules, it hurts people. Storytelling is an act of faith on the part of the listener, and that faith is most fragile and vital for those practicing journalism.
Right now Brian Williams is receiving the scorn and contempt of the world at large, which, I can tell you, feels like thousands of bloodthirsty strangers cutting you with tiny invisible knives. I know it has to hurt. I remember clearly how tempting it was to hide. I didn’t, and from the other side of it, all I can say is that it is one of the first good decisions I made.
So I am going to add to the counsel he’s getting from many corners, since I have the distinct advantage of having stood in a similar fire.
First and foremost, apologize. Fully and directly.
In my experience, audiences are pragmatic and wiser than performers will ever be. People are angry at Williams in part because his explanation of how his story came to pass is ridiculous. “Misremembered”? Come on, man. People want to be treated with respect—they don’t buy that the life-threatening episode event he described was a product of mistaken remembering.
Williams has more at stake than I ever did—he is, after all, an actual journalist. In my mind, it would serve him far better to be at least as forthcoming as I was, and to give a true apology. Not because the people need blood, or because he’s been forced to, but because it’s right.
The problem is that in American public life a person must never admit he’s lied. Our leaders will leap through incredible rhetorical hoops to avoid it: We will be “mistaken,” “misled,” “misrepresented,” “unaccountably in error”—anything to avoid saying that word. It’s American cognitive dissonance at work, because we all know that in the real world people lie all the time. No one tells the unvarnished truth unless he wants to have a very short career—our culture teaches us that it would be far better to be mentally deficient and incompetent than to admit we lied.
Right now we are asked to believe Williams is unaccountably dim and prone to fantastical visions, and that’s why his is no apology at all—because it doesn’t respect the listener.
Next, read all the criticism. Every last lacerating thing someone—especially someone you respect—has to say.
I remember reading article after article savaging me in the press. I still appreciate some of those who wrote tough pieces that were fair, the ones who really connected. It helped me see that I had hurt people. I needed to fully apologize.
It will also help with my final piece of advice: Let go of your pride.
Over time I talked to people who loved me, and colleagues who respected me, who told me that my pride was the main reason for my fall. And this has been the hardest thing about me to change.
I have a quote from the Quran on my wall so I can see it every day. It says, “Put aside your pride, set down your arrogance, and remember your grave.” I do not know if I succeed every day, but I try.
Pride doesn’t just happen in a vacuum. As much as we have been heaping scorn on Williams, there are hard questions for many of us, if we actually ask them. We’re now hearing that people in the industry had suspicions about Williams’ story for years. Why all these journalists couldn’t tell this tale sooner is a question that also has to be asked. And I’d add that it’s a bitter irony that we are debating the details of factual truth in an incident occurring during an entire war started by lies at the highest level—a war driven, in part, by journalists who sometimes simply repeated what they were told.
Looking back, I learned a lot about truth and trust. If I were to speak with Williams, I’d tell him from the other side that you do not apologize to save your job or your career. You do it because in the depths of the night, these are the things that will keep you awake. You do it because you will be able to be with yourself. You do it because you will be able to sleep.