For over a decade, NBC Nightly News’ Brian Williams repeatedly and deliberately lied about being shot down while on a helicopter in Iraq. Yes, a helicopter was shot down. But Williams was never on it. He was 30 to 45 minutes behind it on a completely separate helicopter. He was never in danger. His helicopter never took gunfire. Brian Williams was never in danger. And yet, for over 12 years, he blatantly lied about it.
He finally came clean about it last night. Well, sort of. Instead of just admitting he lied about the whole scenario for over a decade, he said he “misremembered” what happened, which is kind of like forgetting that you weren’t actually there on the moon with Neil Armstrong. According to Williams, “fog of memory” was the culprit. Oh, I’m not actually Superman, I didn’t invent the wheel, and I’m not a five-time Olympic gold medal winner? Really? Well, my bad. My memory’s just a tad bit foggy. I mean, you forgot where you parked the car that one time, right? This is totally the same thing.
If this script sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is. It’s the exact same script that museum gift shop director Neil deGrasse Tyson used after getting busted for blatantly fabricating quotes for years. Heck, Williams even has the same “memory expert” who said Tyson was just a silly forgetfulpants saying the same things of Williams. Because if there’s one thing we know about memory, it’s that people forget that they didn’t actually get shot out of the sky all the time.
“Ordinary false memory that happens to every human being.” Wow. Just…wow. It gets more embarrassing, though:
And remember that time Hillary Clinton lied about coming under sniper fire overseas? Yeah, that wasn’t a lie either. She also forgot that it never happened. Funny how this “ordinary false memory” thing seems to always make the teller of the story look super awesome and courageus, or the teller’s political opponent look stupid and cowardly.
Again, this is the exact same person who went out of his way to say serial fabulist Neil deGrasse Tyson just forgets things sometimes.
The bigger question, though — bigger than “How willfully ignorant do you have to be to think that this was just a silly brain fart?” — is whether Williams will be punished in any way.
Is Brian Williams — the face of NBC News, the man who tells you every night about the things that did and didn’t happen in the world — going to face any long-term consequences for blatantly making up a completely false story about something that didn’t happen in the world? Call me a cynic, but I doubt it. Why? Because of something I like to call the Unified Theory Of Political Lies. When it comes to very prominent political figures — news anchors, presidential candidates, elected representatives — only two things matter if and when they get busted: which team they play for, and whether their lie is helpful to their team’s cause. Nothing else matters.
Here’s my theory in graphical form:
If you play for the right team and tell a lie that’s helpful to your team’s cause, you’re untouchable. You’ll be protected. Maybe even promoted. In political media in America today, you can’t be on the right team unless you’re a liberal. Conservatives and Republicans? They’re on the wrong team.
What happens if you’re on the wrong team but tell a lie that’s helpful to the right team? Easy: you get “strange new respect” from the right team. This dynamic explains David Brock’s career and evolution from so-called conservative hit man to shameless progressive propagandist.
What happens if you are on the wrong team and tell the wrong lie: a lie that hurts, rather than helps, the right team? That’s a no-brainer. You are toast. Nothing can save you.
And then we have the fourth and final category: the wrong lie told by a member of the right team. Those don’t actually exist. If you’re on the right team, you can do no wrong. Your tribal membership justifies and sanctifies you.
Lest you think I’m crazy, this precise dynamic was demonstrated in real-time last night as the news broke. Liberal media members in good standing immediately jumped to Williams’ defense:
Yes, that exchange actually happened. A career political reporter asked himself why somebody in the political arena would lie about something, as if it were a brand new thing that had never before happened in human history.
This is why it’s highly unlikely (though not impossible) for Williams to face any long-term career consequences for his lie. Hillary Clinton lied about coming under sniper fire. The consequence? She was elected senator, appointed Secretary of State, and may well be the next president of the United States. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut lied about serving in Vietnam. What happened to him? He became Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut.
Try to imagine for one second what would have happened to Sarah Palin if she had lied about being shot down while visiting Iraq or Afghanistan. Try to see if there’s a measure of time small enough to accurately capture how quickly she would’ve been chewed up and spit out by the exact same people who are now pretending that Brian Williams just had a senior moment about that thing that totally never happened.
American politics isn’t fair, though. Justice is not handed out evenly. It doesn’t matter if you’re wrong or right. It only matters if you play for the right team.