NBC has suspended nightly news chief anchor and managing editor Brian Williams for six months without pay for falsifying what happened when he was reporting in Iraq. Does the punishment fit the offense?
Well, there may be more punishment. NBC is still investigating other alleged fictions by Williams. But NBC concedes that at least he lied repeatedly about his experience in Iraq. That is enough to settle the question of proper punishment. It doesn’t matter what other fabrications may turn up.
Offenses can be wrong for reasons either internal or external to the enterprise. Historian Quinn is arrested for drunken driving; historian Smith is caught intentionally falsifying the historical record. Quinn’s offense discredits his character, but Smith’s discredits the very enterprise of historiography. Lying about history may not be the worse offense; after all, drunk driving can kill. But it is a worse historical offense – the worst that a historian can commit against his vocation. Perhaps Quinn shouldn’t be fired. Smith has to be.
Plainly, Williams’ offense is more like Smith’s than like Quinn’s. It demonstrates contempt for the very principle of honest news reporting. It is not the sort of thing for which you “lead someone to the exit door,” as one pundit put it. It is the sort of thing for which you hoist him by his suspenders and kick him out of it.
NBC’s failure to recognize this fact suggests that the management of the organization is confused about the virtues essential to its calling. If so, then there is no reason to think that the fabulist Williams is an isolated case.