On Lies, Embellishments and Journalism

Williams Recovers from Falling on His Sword, While O’Reilly Never Even Thought about Falling on His Own.

brian williams

Real journalists, when caught in a lie, get fired. Brian William finally returned to TV as a breaking news anchor for MSNBC on September 22nd after being canned by NBC in February when it was discovered that his mostly off-air comments about his experiences in Iraq, among others, were not true. O’Reilly, on the other hand, after being caught in numerous on-air and off-air bald-faced lies, kept on keepin’ on. What gives?

Lying is nothing new in the course of human history. It’s not even unique to our species ─ chimpanzees have been known to do it, and other species as well. And of course we Homo sapiens are the grand masters of lying. The fact that there are no less than 43 synonyms for lie in the English language, is telling. If George Washington ever actually said, “I cannot tell a lie,” it is almost proof that he was a liar.

We are also all embellishers, the slightly less ugly cousin of the liar.

Seriously ─ just look at your resume. Were you really responsible for the increase in sales revenue? Did you really supervise the whole kitchen brigade? And does your more distant (and less verifiable) work history somehow improve with the passage of time? Memories are like photocopies of photocopies: they degrade. But in many cases they mysteriously degrade in a good way, making us look better, braver, smarter, wiser.

Outright liars usually get caught, and pay a price. History is rife with examples. If you claim to have graduated from Princeton University, but actually graduated from Podunk University, you’ll eventually get caught, and perhaps, fired. (Hard to argue it was just a typo.) This is especially true if you’re a public figure, under the microscope, with every journalist in the world, and every enemy (who may also be journalists) looking for the scoop. Which is all the more reason public figures, especially journalists and politicians, would be well advised to be extraordinarily careful.

Brian Williams was suspended from CBS for making mostly offhanded comments that his helicopter was forced down in Iraq by RPG fire, as well as statements about what he witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. None of which were true. But he is a journalist, and we are right to expect more of him. He didn’t obfuscate. He manned-up, fessed-up, and lost his job. He didn’t demonize his critics, engage in schoolyard-esque ad hominem attacks about perceived bullies. He apologized. He packed his personal belongings in cardboard box along with his crumpled pink slip and went home. His recent reemergence on MSNBC after 7 months left him looking somewhat haggard. He’s probably been sitting on his sofa, wearing a stained t-shirt and boxer shorts, bleary-eyed with two days of beard growth, nursing a scotch, glued to his TV watching Bill O´Reilly’s own scandals unfold. In my imagining of this scenario, Williams is confounded by Bill’s pernicious resilience.

bill o'reilly

O’Reilly’s fabrications, as outlined in Mother Jones and further confirmed, were by order of magnitude more egregious than Brian Williams’. He’s accused of lying when he said, “I saw nuns get shot in the back of the head” when recounting his time in El Salvador in 1981.  Impossible, according to Media Matters. But Bill graduated with a B.S. degree in embellishment to take a full-blown PhD in lying, defending his doctoral thesis with tooth and claw. He claimed to be in the thick of the Falklands war zone in 1982, having guns pointed at him, of rescuing a coworker, of having witnessed a mass riot where citizens were killed. None of it true, according to every source that was there, except of course, Bill himself.

And he was apparently never in any danger of being fired. Instead, he got fired up. He started making threats. He was garnering support from Fox News automatons. And his ratings are up.

The latest “gotcha” is a doozy. In his book Killing Kennedy he claims to have heard the self-inflicted shotgun blast that ended the life of Lee Harvey Oswald’s friend George de Mohrenschildt in Palm Beach Florida in 1977, while he was outside of Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s home. A phone call recorded at the time, however, uncovered by journalist Jefferson Morley two years ago and aired recently on CNN’s Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter, clearly shows that O’Reilly was 1,200 miles away at the time. Oops. No way for O’Reilly to credibly claim that the audio tape isn’t true. Or that he misremembered. Or it’s some kind of left wing conspiracy.

This time O’Reilly’s right wing supporters and conspiracy theorists have fallen conspicuously silent. As has O’Reilly. He didn’t fess-up, take the blame, or pack his bags.

We’ve all lied, we’ve all embellished, we’ve all misremembered. We’re all human. But we’re not all journalists, and we’re not all habitual liars. As Jon Stewart has pointed out, though, Fox News is. And Bill O’Reilly, in the greatest Fox tradition, does not just play fast and loose with the truth, he has an actual contempt for it.

Which explains why his job was never in any danger. And why Teflon Trump can utter the most supercilious asininities without negative affect. Fox doesn’t even pretend to value facts, despite its slogan of “fair and balanced.” Facts are for losers, as I can easily imagine Trump saying. O’Reilly is still around because nobody seriously expects him to tell the truth, unless of course their only source of news is Fox News, in which case they have no other source to compare.


© 2015 by Glen Olives Thompson.