Trust, Lying and Apologies – the Brian Williams Case
UPDATE 9:30PM Feb 10: Since this post was first written, NBC News has suspended Brian Williams for 6 months. This will only heighten the buzz around something really not all that important (except to Wiliams, of course). He has become the gossip du jour, and I don’t see anyone achieving escape velocity beyond the obsession with “what should be done about him.”
That is SO the wrong question. The real question – and the one this blogpost originally set out to address – is “what are the learnings for all of us who find ourselves in positions of trust: what threatens our perceived trustworthiness? How do we keep trust? And, can we recover trust lost – and how?”
That question is relevant to nearly everyone reading this blog. The question of whither Brian Williams will occupy magazine covers and water cooler chit chat for 10 days max, before Bruce Jenner knocks him off the hashtag list. But when that happens – what will we have learned from it? What will you have learned from it?
Original post Feb 8: The fate of US newscaster Brian Williams is still unknown at this writing. The facts as they are emerging suggest that truth was stretched, it was stretched by Williams, and it was not a blinding surprise to a lot of news insiders.
I’ll leave it to others to talk about ethics, or to predict Williams’ fate. But it does offer a teachable moment about human frailties, about apologies, and in particular how to recover – and how not to recover – from trust disasters.
Human Memory is Not Binary
Williams went from correctly recalling past events in the far past, to revising them more recently. While some people do consciously lie, it is much more common that we deceive ourselves, through a process of constant repetition of a story.
I can relate to this personally. I used someone else’s case study to round out a trio of cases I had created (I wrote the first two). Over years of using them, I somehow came to believe I had written all three. When confronted dramatically in a class session by none other than the real case author, I was at first righteously indignant. How dare you accuse me of plagiarism? Yet over the course of the next 12 hours, I began to recall, and realized to my horror that that was exactly what I had done. And I had to completely eat my earlier words, taking full responsibility.
Just this past week, I wrote a sharply worded email to someone who had inappropriately used some intellectual property of mine on Slideshare, without attribution. He wrote back quickly in a tone of annoyance, disingenuously saying it wasn’t important and was aimed at a higher goal. I wrote back even more sharply.
Less than 24 hours later, I received another email from the person, this time very clearly acknowledging the transgression, accepting full responsibility, and offering not only a correction but a form of restitution. I gratefully accepted, 100% – it was, after all, a totally proper apology. And I know, first hand, how easy it is to fool one’s own memory.
Something like this is almost certainly what’s happing with Brian Williams. His first halting attempt at apology suggested that he was involved in a higher mission, and that his intentions were good.
I strongly suspect Mr Williams is going through agonizing soul-searching right now, wondering how he could have possibly gotten things so wrong over the years. The word ‘hubris’ will be mentioned by others, and eventually I suspect he’ll see it in himself.
Trust and Apologies
There is a very simple rule, which is constantly violated by nearly all tellers-of-untruth. It is this:
Rule 1: Never, ever, under-estimate your responsibility for what happened.
- If you were Richard Nixon, never refer to Watergate as “a two-bit burglary.”
- If you were Bill Clinton, never suggest culpability depends on the meaning of the word ‘is.’
- If you were Brian Williams, never suggest your error was justified by good intentions or a higher cause.
A corollary to the rule: the likelihood of your being condemned in the public’s eye increases with the square of the time you take to acknowledge Rule 1.
To recover trust, you must first acknowledge. It’s hard to over-acknowledge, and in fact we want and expect a bit of exaggeration of responsibility – that’s how we know you “got it.” But it’s the kiss of death to under-estimate your responsibility.
And of course, you’ve got to do it soon.
Brian Williams may feel he bought himself time by voluntarily stepping down for “several days” as anchor.
My feeling is that he misunderstood the role of time; in this case, time is not on his side. He didn’t buy time – he squandered it.
Your article is the first one I have read that is sensible and not defending the occasional lie. Thank you!
One thing I’ve found useful (and it’s not original to me by any means) is to ask “What is my role in creating this problem?” It not only causes me to pause and put the defensiveness on hold for a minute, it also helps me put my finger on what I contributed by my own action or inaction. I suspect that if Williams had been able to do this, he might have discovered the facts behind his own re-imagining of helicopter ride and and come to the truth more quickly, as you did on reflection in your case-writing example.
Sir, as you are being a good man, you are being very generous with Mr. Williams and assuming the best. But, he must go. This is about integrity – of a man and of a news network. He is accountable. We must demand facts from U.S. (and all) news organizations. There is too much at risk.
Hank, whether he should go or not is a different question, one I intentionally didn’t address. I was focusing just on how we come to tell lies to ourselves, and on the right way to escape from a trap like this.
But for what it’s worth, I’m inclined to agree with you. In a funny way, we can countenance lies more from a President (e.g. see all the recent remembrances of Reagan’s tall tales) than we can from a national newscaster. We may ‘forgive’ politicians (though actually we just don’t expect them to tell the truth), but we are much harder – with reason – on those who claim the professional mantle of truth-tellers.
And while predictions are yet another thing, I don’t think it’s looking good for him; I think your view will prevail.
Charlie- While your solution is excellent, I don’t believe for one minute that Brian Williams didn’t know he was lying. Perhaps in his “stepping down” a deal was struck so that his other lapses in memory will not be revealed.
Barbara, that is simply not my experience. In nearly all cases I’ve seen, the liar has convinced himself over a period of time of the truth of his narrative. It is the exception, not the norm, when people like this (clearly non-sociopaths, largely good people) are consciously, intentionally lying.
Charlie, while I can be open to the possibility of a liar being convinced “over a period of time of the truth of his narrative”, this still means he intentionally lied at the outset. I contend this is like lying on your resume. It is possible for someone to overlook their lie and therefore come to believe (accept?) it, but I suspect a person always knows what they did. It’s a major character flaw and one that his superiors at NBC should carefully investigate to be sure that, as Barbara aptly notes, “his other lapses in memory” (body floating by in the French Quarter during Katrina) will indeed be publicly evaluated. I do agree that a complete and sincere apology should be delivered immediately, with no evasion or hedging. So far, Mr. Williams seems more suitable to being in Congress than in being trusted as a major journalism figure.
Thanks PriusGuy. I agree with you that he’s (unfortunately) acting more like a congressman than a trusted journalist.
But I would push back on the idea that a liar intentionally lies from the outset.
As Barbara noted to me in a separate communication, think of the “fish that got away” story. With every telling, the fish gets bigger. I just think that most of us semi-consciously gild the lily, convince ourselves that the fish was really closer to 13″ than 12″, that the crowd applause for us really was that deafening, that everyone really did laugh that hilariously at our joke, and that it really was our insight that turned the boss’s mistaken world view around.
Human consciousness is a very slippery fish, to continue the analogy. People in the addiction field can tell you, denial is a hugely powerful phenomenon; what seems incredible to an outsider (“how can she possibly not know he took that hussy with him to the Islands for a week!”) seems a simple matter of fact – or absence of fact – to the individual.
I won’t pretend to tell anyone else how fibbing works for them – but I know in my case it’s somewhere far more obscure than, “I know I’m telling a flat out lie here, but I think I’ll do it anyway and bet I can get away with it.” It’s more like wishful thinking, and if you live in wish-land long enough, you start to believe your own hooey.
That’s not an excuse, by the way. But it is I think a better explanation than, “He’s a flat out liar and he knows it.”
I’m not sure the analogy holds. A fish, regardless of size, was in all likelihood hooked and did get away at some point. There is no evidence that his helicopter took any fire on this trip. Heck, it wasn’t even another chopper in his caravan. As such, it is a complete fabrication and not an embellishment. So it would probably be more accurate to say “He was a flat out liar and he knew it” which would allow him over time to believe his own lie.
I am not without sympathy and agree with Joe Scarborough’s comments today that everyone has made bad mistakes. And that some of these mistakes can be far more injurious to others than what Brian Williams has done. Nor am I calling for NBC to fire him; that is their business to resolve, not mine.
However, the absence of the full and complete apology when caught in the lie remains disturbing, regardless of how nice he was to the Scarborough family and his NBC colleagues. As Barbara has suggested, rather than an honest and sincere apology, there may be revelations of more fibs to come. Let’s see what happens.
I am enjoying this discussion immensely. I would like to add that in the area brain science it is been documented that when we recall previous events even days or weeks after they happen, we only recall the emotions associated with the event and our mind subconsciously fills in the details. Usually those details are not based on fact but on the subconscious story we tell ourselves about that associated event. I’m not saying Williams doesn’t need to be culpable at some level but I do suggest that we all fill in the memories with facts that we think are true but are not based in reality. With that assumption, it would be good if we realize all of our assumptions and opinions about the Williams are based on our own memories and the emotions associated with them. It will allow a little room for understanding of Williams and compassion about his situation.
Science actually backs up Dan’s point. I am willing to wager that everyone on this thread has had a story or two that has been a bit astray from the actual events. I would further posit that we could be in the same room, witness the same event and have different recollections. It is in how we clean up the mess we make that determines our trustworthiness.