Brian Williams has not survived the kerfuffle over his helicopter ride in Iraq. And, personally, I think that is a shame. As has been said many times the past few days: The only person ever held accountable for lies related to the Iraq War.
Yes, what he did was terrible. And I’ll absolutely admit that it looks like a flat-out lie.
But please keep something in mind: All the other major networks —CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS— they all totally have something to gain by keeping this “controversy” alive. They absolutely have a financial stake in seeing Williams fall from grace. Even today, with other breaking news in the world, CNN is still all over this story. And if you think they’re keeping this story alive out of their own sense of journalist ethics, you are among the most naive of the naive.
One thing is clear: Brian Williams was not home eating Bon Bons when this happened. Whether or not he was shot at, he was in the midst of a war zone. And the lie he told, while deeply disturbing for any journalist, is a lie of self-aggrandizement which has not permanently hurt anyone else, except for Brian Williams.
I mean, stand back and really analyze Williams’ supposedly wretched and unpardonable breach of journalistic ethics.
Is William alleged to have lied about a source?
Is Williams alleged to have mis-quoted a source?
Is William alleged to have spun the facts to allow NBC a competitive advantage over its rivals?
Is Williams alleged to have lied about the facts in the course of his work such that it endangered the public or anyone else?
The point is, there is no major “there” there. Yes, it’s a bad thing. Yes, he shouldn’t have done it. Yes, I get that folks are outraged. But this is a lie that only hurts himself. You don’t have to believe that his journalistic credibility is now forever shot. But you can.
So, no, I don’t personally think he should lose his job over this. But based on what I’m reading, it sounds like many people do.
And when he does, then chalk up another victory for The Moral Outrage Machine©. Whether we know it or not, we are all being led, groomed, and fed, every day, by what I’m calling The Moral Outrage Machine©. Time and time again, we build up our public figures, only to knock them down.
The “MOM” (somebody else can do the Freudian work here…) is no single source, and it’s every source. It’s a lethal combination of the mass media, cable news, social media, and water cooler conversation. It’s all of us and none of us. It’s a machine bent on creating two things:
— Moral Outrage
— A “Scapegoat” to assuage said Moral Outrage.
Once the Moral Outrage Machine is fully engaged, only the strongest-willed human beings can ever stand against it, and not give in to the need for a scapegoat.
Karen Armstrong begins and ends her new book “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence,” reminding us of the ancient religious practice of the “scapegoat.” The scapegoat was a ritual animal that was either sacrificed, or driven from the community, bearing the sins of the entire community.
In utilizing the scapegoat ritual, the community’s “sins” were said to have been forgiven. However, it also had the often unfortunate side effect of allowing people to ignore, or rationalize away, their own personal and communal culpability for those same sins. The scapegoat takes all sin away. So, we don’t need to worry about that. (In some very popular Christian theologies, Jesus plays this same role, btw…)
Armstrong suggests we have never lost our ability, and our desire, to scapegoat others. Or, as I liked to call it: To create The Other (with a capital letter…) Her book suggests that religion itself is becoming a scapegoat of modern culture; an argument I personally find deeply persuasive.
But in modern times, we not only see scapegoating in our religious traditions. Our Popular Culture knows how to do it exceedingly well, utilizing the aforementioned Moral Outrage Machine (™).
This brings me to Chris Kyle. He’s back in the news this week too, with the trial of his alleged killer underway this morning here in Texas. I believe this current controversy with Brian Williams has everything to do —in a macro-sense, in a meta-cultural sense— with Chris Kyle and his story. In fact, I believe the narratives of these two men are connected together in some deep, archetypal way that we haven’t even considered. And it’s all tied up with The Moral Outrage Machine and our need for a scapegoat.
“Can a sniper BE a hero?”
“How can we NOT support a movie about a decorated veteran?”
What both questions failed to note were the actual facts: That Chris Kyle is a documented, and now legally adjudicated, liar.
He lied about his encounter with Jesse Ventura (a lie so blatant that Ventura, a public figure, won a slander case against him…)
He lied about killing two people in a small Texas town.
He lied about shooting dead 30 looters in NOLA after Katrina…
And he lied about seeing WMD in Iraq.
At least four documented lies in this hero’s book.
Is Chris Kyle a war hero?
Yes. Absolutely he is.
But he’s also a liar. The two are not mutually exclusive categories of human behavior.
And his lies are clearly far more numerous, and much more self-aggrandizing, than Brian Williams’.
But! Did the phony Moral Outrage Machine fire up over his lies? Call for the boycott the movie because of his lying?
Not much, that I saw. Some folks debate whether or not a sniper can be a war hero. But that’s another question. I heard almost nothing on whether or not we should support the story of a liar. (For the record: I still plan to see the movie myself. And, yes, I think he’s a hero, in case you missed me saying that a minute ago)
Our Moral Outrage Machines were already fully engaged, society went looking for another target, and one related to the Iraq War. Again, this is not a mistake or coincidence. Nor do I think it was a conscious choice. I think subconsciously the Kyle story brought back the whole debate about honor, dishonor, truth, and lies…and how all these related to the Iraq War. And since all of this was floating around our subconscious, the Moral Outrage Machine looked around and…
Oh! Look! There’s Brian Williams!
Let’s GET ‘em!!
A few hours from now, the Moral Outrage Machine will feel sufficiently justified once again, as the scapegoat has again been driven from the community. And life can return to normal.
Until the next time.
Because when your theology —spiritual or secular— demands a scapegoat, then there’s always going to be a next time.