Brian Williams, the respected journalist and NBC news anchor with the highest TV ratings, was caught in a fast breaking scandal on Sunday, February 15. Williams had reported that he had been in a helicopter in Iraq that had been hit by enemy fire. On “Reliable Sources” , a former Navy Seal, Don Mann, was interviewed about Williams account. He vigorously refuted the claim, saying , “None of it can be true.” He explained that journalists were never embedded with Navy Seals on helicopters. The interview went viral on cable networks. Brian Williams false claim became the big story on every broadcast. Within a week, he was suspended by the NBC network for six months without pay. His reputation was in shreds and his career appeared to be over based on a “morality clause” in NBC contracts.
It should not be surprising that telling a lie about his wartime experience was Brian Williams downfall. Honesty is a value ranked very high by Americans for public figures. Remember the apocryphal story of young George Washington telling his father the truth about chopping down the cherry tree. When parents are asked on a survey to rank the values they consider most important to impart to their children, guess what has ranked number one for decades. Honesty. This answer in research studies cuts across all class levels, ethnic, racial and religious groups, and regions in the United States. It’s Honesty with a capital H. No contest.
During the height of the Brian Williams scandal, two psychiatrists wrote an Op Ed piece in The New York Times on the effect that memory has on recollection of past events. It was not an apology for Williams, but they raised certain evidence that memory can change our recollections for the better or worse. That it may not be a deliberate process, rather a blurring of the past through the years. To find a definition of a lie, we can consult Roget’s Thesaurus : “lie, n. prevarication, fabrication, fib, falsehood, story, cock-and-bull story, little white lie, whopper , untruth, perjury, fiction, deceit, misrepresentation, stretching the truth, barefaced lie.”
Many parents instill in children from earliest years, “It’s important to tell the truth.” Example: “Did you take Susan’s doll? Did you put it in the dryer?” Pause. No response. “Tell me the truth. I won’t be angry if you tell me the truth.” A three year old weighs her options and the expression on her mother’s face. And her past experience, of course, with telling a lie or telling the truth. The point is that telling a lie or the truth starts early with children. And they sort out the consequences very early as well. They also learn from listening and watching what we, the parents do. That may be the best teacher of all. They hear discussions around income tax time, when all the papers are spread on the dining room table. As they grow older, they hear comments about “reporting certain items and not others.” They’re very smart. They learn all the time about honesty and telling lies.
They also hear false compliments between friends and relatives about all sorts of every day events. “That was the most delicious turkey I ever tasted.” “Love the new drapes. They’re so colorful. Brighten the room.” Later at home, the truth comes out. “She always cooks the turkey too long. Dries right out.” “Those drapes were in terrible taste. Looks like a Holiday Inn.” Very confusing to a child. Two conflicting statements. First, positive. Then negative. Are their parents telling lies?
Dissecting a lie always leads us to context, motivation and consequences. Whether for a child or for a president. Do we always tell it like it is? De we consider hurting the feelings of other people? Are we truthful in our responses when someone asks us to comment upon their attire, their appearance or their work? Do we soften what we say? Do we weigh the consequences implicitly before we answer?
Think of the people you know. Whom do you consider to be a truthful person? Is that an important measure in how you judge character? Is that what you value in friendship? Are there other measures as important or more important to you? There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. They are posed as springboards to reflection and discussion.
It may be time to turn our attention to other attributes: Kindness. Empathy. Conscience. Loyalty. Tolerance as opposed to prejudice. Standing up and speaking out for what we believe in. These too are worthy ideals we seek to instill in our children. We have to remember that they learn every day from our actions as well as our words about all our values — including honesty.