Why are we obsessed with the public shaming of Brian Williams? What does it say about us?
And what if anything can lawyers learn from the experience?
The first two questions are relatively easy to answer. Our society has become celebrity-crazed and media-driven. We love personal scandals – as long we’re not the one being scandalized – for the same reason we love televised police chases and brawling spouses on Jerry Springer. They’re dramatic, salacious and they’re happening to someone else, not us.
The answer to the third question is a bit trickier. But in the end, it’s the one that matters most.
The Star-Making Machinery
We love to build up our celebrities. And then we love to tear them down. Brian Williams was on top of the world. He had a plum job. He made a lot of money and had a lot of important friends.
But he lied to make a story sound more dramatic and to make himself look better. And he got caught. So down he falls.
That makes him merely the latest in a long line of victims ranging from A-Rod and Lance Armstrong to Dan Rather and Justin Bieber.
It’s a collective social pathology, and we all suffer from it.
He describes the public undoing of then-Presidential candidate Gary Hart as “the first in a seemingly endless parade of exaggerated scandals and public floggings, the harbinger of an age when the threat of instant destruction would mute any thoughtful debate, when even the perception of some personal imperfection could obliterate, or at least eclipse, whatever else had accumulated in the public record.”
What Was I Thinking?
The tragedy is that a long career of good deeds can be undone in a single instance of bad judgment.
We see it all the time in our profession. Lawyers who have served ably and with distinction for years suddenly appear in the Disciplinary Actions section of the Bar Journal. Eagerly we read the details and pronounce ourselves shocked. Stunned.
What happened? What were they thinking?
At our next bar meeting we lower our voices and ask, “Did you hear about so-and-so?” And for so-and-so, as with Brian Williams, nothing will ever be quite the same.
One of the best commentaries I’ve read on the Williams saga comes from television writer-producer Norman Lear:
“[Williams] puffed up his part of the tale, and in the manner of a young boy, he lied. Now, we can label him Lyin’ Brian and revel in seeing his image shattered. There but for the grace of the moment go I, we can think – a very human feeling, by the way – or we can examine our individual humanity and perhaps find the small child in ourselves that has been inflating his or her grown-up image for years, puffing up a moment here or there – a test score, an athletic feat, a hint of danger and our survival.”
4 Takeaways for Lawyers
- Remember our roles. Brian Williams was a news anchor – or, if you prefer, news reader. But it seems that somewhere along the way he got confused. He morphed into a celebrity. He starred on 30 Rock and the Late Night show. He hung around celebrities. He tossed his name in the ring to replace Jay Leno. Perhaps this quest for celebrity – instead of sticking to his role as newsman with integrity and diligence – helped fuel his demise.
- Don’t become the story. As lawyers it is tempting to think we are not just part of the story, we are the star. We’re not. The client is. The case is.
- Memory cannot always be trusted. “Our memories are not very reliable, especially in life-and-death situations,” writes Joe Klein in Time. “Part of it is, yes, our need to aggrandize the risks we take; part of it is our minds’ reaction to fear. Part of it is that journalism involves story-telling and sometimes the story gets carried away with itself. Mistakes are made…. In the end, I find the phenomenon of the schadenfreude circus that has erupted–yet again–to be overwrought and unnecessarily brutal.”
- Practice empathy. We have all been where Brian Williams, although likely in less public and consequential ways.
Norman Lear again: “Yes, Brian Williams is a newsman and an anchor and holding him to the highest standard goes with the territory. But he’s a human first, and drastic ironies and imperfections come with each of us in that territory. Wouldn’t we be a gentler, more educative culture if, instead of wallowing in Williams’ shame, we treated it as an opportunity for all of us to discuss and examine the nature of the humanity we have in common?”
- Random House, All The Truth is Out http://www.randomhouse.com/book/196550/all-the-truth-is-out-by-matt-bai
- Yahoo News . http://news.yahoo.com/the-always-amusing-brian-williams-225321107.html
- Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/norman-lear/brian-williams-enough-already_b_6651638.html
- Time.com http://time.com/3699289/brian-williams-apology/
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney who has practiced North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.