Why it’s Not OK to Tell a Little White Lie, Brian Williams

Dear Brian Williams: say it isn’t so.NewYorkPost3

But it’s too late because you already lied in the story you told about being in a helicopter that was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2003. You weren’t.

That “little” white lie should end up with Williams losing his job. He’s already taken a leave and NBC has launched an investigation of his other reporting, including whether he saw a body floating by his hotel room in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

We love to listen to stories, but feel betrayed when the storyteller isn’t telling the truth.

Where Are They Now?

Reporters and writers are not immune from telling lies and exaggerating the truth. Jack Kelley, a former USA Today reporter, fabricated substantial portions of major stories, stole material from competitors and lied in speeches before he was exposed.

It took noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin years to repair her reputation after she was accused of plagiarizing from several sources in her hugely popular The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, a 1987 bestseller that later was made into a successful TV miniseries.

More recent examples of falsehoods include Mitt Romney, who claimed he was at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the automobile when he wasn’t even born yet;benfranklin Hillary Clinton, who erred when said she came under sniper fire on a trip to Bosnia; and George W. Bush, who said he watched the first plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11 when he was, in fact, speaking to children in a class room.

These are egregious examples, but little white lies can turn into big ones and eventually your reputation will be destroyed when you’re found out.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation and only one bad one to lose it.”

Can You Stretch the Truth?

No. Reporters and competitors can now track your every word by searching the Internet. They are like a dog with a bone. They will dig and dig and what they learn may come back to bite you.

Whether it’s a sales call, media interview, or presentation, people too often exaggerate the numbers. Tell the truth and back it up with facts. If you are quoting a study, then be sure to give the proper attribution. If you use a phrase that you read somewhere, be sure you give credit to the author.

There are so many lies out there – eventually the liar can’t remember whom s/he told what to. The lies take on a life of their own. Sometimes a person’s memory plays tricks. You remember something that didn’t actually happen, according to Elizabeth Loftus, who is recognized for her research into false memory.

Give Credit Where it’s Due

Sales meetings are full of hyperbole – one MCI executive didn’t realize reporters were in the room when he told his sales team “Now, let’s get MA Bell and her seven little bastards.” Nowadays everyone is tweeting what speakers are saying and once you say it you can’t take it back.

Be sure to do your research before you make a claim, especially one for your own company. To be innovative or first with a new idea is difficult. If it’s not your original idea, you must give credit where it’s due.

Brian Williams’s public non-apology is not enough. As David Carr reported in the New York Times, “A full-throated, unmodulated apology is the only thing that will satisfy a public who placed their trust in him.”

He needs to apologize to the veterans who were actually on the plane under rocket fire as well as to NBC and to his family. He also needs to learn why he has a compulsion to embellish his stories.

NBC needs to wrap this up quickly because every day this story lingers in the news, the more the company’s brand will be tarnished.

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  1. Yes news reporters must be believable and earn our trust which is why Mr. Williams will be replaced as have the long line of reporters guilty of the same infraction in the past. Yet it is fascinating that some in public life outrun their telling of untruths. A couple examples include Joe Biden withdrew from the 1988 presidential election in the wake of plagiarism charges and embellishing his law school record. Hilary Clinton says she was just tired when purporting to be in harm’s way and under fire. Do we hold our reporters to higher standards than our political leaders or have we just come to accept the most influential aren’t always honest and truthful?

  2. Carolyn,
    It would be truly sad if we come to accept lying as a way of life whether for reporters or for political leaders. The ramifications of lying are far reaching and remind me of a pebble skipping through water. Once the pebble is set in motion, there no stopping it. Lying has a similar trajectory. Once someone gets away with a lie, it makes it easier for them to lie the next time. For me, there is no relationship without trust. Brian Williams has lost my trust.
    Thank you for commenting.

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