Why Brian Williams Is Just Like You (And Vice Versa)

February 16, 2015 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Brian WilliamsSix months. That’s how long NBC has suspended Brian Williams, the anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, in response to inaccurate statements he made about riding in a Chinook helicopter that was hit by an RPG while reporting from Iraq in 2003.[1]

Before I proceed any farther with this story, a bit of disclosure: I like Brian Williams. I have been watching Brian, and before him Tom Brokaw, on NBC Nightly News for years. I suspect I’m not the only one.

But this blog is not so much about the misdeeds and subsequent suspension of Brian Williams as it is about the public response to the misdeeds and subsequent suspension of Brian Williams. Two primary responses to this debacle seem to have emerged.

The first is that of antipathy. On Twitter, whole hashtags are devoted to ripping Williams for his sloppy retelling of his time in Iraq. The crush of critics reveling in what can only be described as a psychotic schadenfreude is unnerving to newsmen such as Bill O’Reilly, who told Jimmy Kimmel: “Anybody who is enjoying the destruction of this man — you got to look at yourself. And there’s a lot of people who seem to be real happy his career is going down the drain. That disturbs me.”[2] I couldn’t agree more. The prophet Obadiah warns, “You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune, nor rejoice over…people… in the day of their destruction, nor boast so much in the day of their trouble” (Obadiah 12). But this is exactly what some people are doing. They are filled with gleeful antipathy.

But this isn’t the only response to this sordid affair. There’s another, much more supportive response to the embattled reporter – that of sympathy. Some folks have rallied to Williams’ side, especially on the Facebook page for Nightly News. Again and again, supporters have commented, “Bring back Brian Williams!!!!!!” (Sometimes, their messages have included even more exclamation points). These people are willing to overlook Williams’ faux pas and offer their unreserved, untempered support. They feel bad for the news anchor and believe his actions should get a pass.

Honestly, I am not comfortable with either of these responses. The antipathy of some smacks of an arrogant judgmentalism while the sympathy of others seems to be little more than a sappy sentimentalism. As Christians, I believe the best thing we can offer Brian Williams – and others caught in similar transgressions – is our empathy.

Though the word “empathy” was coined only at the beginning of the twentieth century, it is an important and helpful term to describe the similarities between others and ourselves. When we understand how much we share in common with others, it helps us help others. This is part of what the preacher of Hebrews says constitutes the very heart of Jesus’ ministry: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus, through His incarnation, empathizes with us. He puts Himself in our place and knows exactly how we feel. He then helps us accordingly.

So what does it mean to empathize with Brian Williams? It means we need to admit that we, like he, are prone to yarn spinning. It means we need to be willing to say, to borrow a mantra from the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, “Je suis Brian Williams.” Those who are highly antipathetic toward Brian Williams seem to have forgotten this. From their perch of righteous indignation, they throw stones, ignoring that their perch sits in a glass house. The apostle Paul’s words are especially apropos here: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Romans 2:1).

But true empathy goes farther than just identifying with another person. True empathy leads to helping that person. How can we help Brian Williams? In the same way Jesus helps us. He calls us to repentance. This is where folks highly sympathetic to Brian Williams go wrong. In their zeal to support the anchor, they have minimized and rationalized his sin.

I find it hopeful that in a statement released by Steve Burke, CEO and President of NBC Universal, Mr. Burke indicated that Brian “shared his deep remorse with me and he is committed to winning back everyone’s trust.”[3] Remorse can be well and good, but not unless it is what Paul calls “Godly sorrow [that] brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). My prayer is that Brian Williams’ remorse is a Godly remorse.

Do you know what the best part of repentance for Brian Williams will be? At this point, Brian has no guarantee that his suspension will not ultimately become his termination. NBC has refused to guarantee his position. But even if NBC says, “You’re fired,” in repentance, Jesus says, “You’re forgiven.” And that’s better than any anchor chair. And that’s a promise good not only for a national news anchor, but for low-profile, everyday sinners like you and me.

_____________________________

[1] Roger Yu and Melanie Eversley, “NBC: Brian Williams suspended for six months,” USA Today (2.11.2015).

[2]Bill O’Reilly says Brian Williams ‘made a mistake,’ not sure he will keep job,” Fox News (2.10.2015).

[3] Erik Wemple, “How can NBC News’s Brian Williams ‘win back everyone’s trust’ from the beach?Washington Post (2.10.2015).

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Kim E.  |  February 16, 2015 at 9:03 am

    This reminds me a bit of the embellishment that Chris Kyle may have used in his book regarding the incident with Jesse Ventura. However, somehow the penance was a great sum of money and the burden was put on his wife and children. I expect that there is a greater need for embellishment in the media. The more attention a story gets, the more the price goes up. Americans like drama. Drama makes money for the media. Unfortunately, Jesus and forgiveness were not seen in any of the stories I read regarding either of these “embellishments”.

    Reply

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