Brian Williams, perhaps the last of the classically mainstream news anchors, is on six month suspension. The basis for this suspension is a story Williams told, not in his professional capacity as a newscaster, but rather one about himself — though for reasons that will soon become clear, the two have become inextricable. Williams claimed that in 2003, on assignment in Iraq, the helicopter that he was riding in was shot down. This story, while rooted in fact, had over time been embellished by Williams and used as a burnishing of his credentials.
The exposure of Williams’s fabrications and his subsequent suspension was met with the usual dose of glee, point scoring and heavy handed moralizing.
In a bit on his show, the conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly, in equal parts moralizing and point scoring, slammed the NBC Anchor. By castigating Williams for his embellishment, while also holding him up as a broader symbol of the corruption and decline of the liberal media, O’Reilly delivered the sort of fire-breathing invective against the left that has made him such a prominent figure for Fox News.
In a delicious bit of irony, the past few days have seen O’Reilly’s own wartime reporting claims also come under question, with O’Reilly’s own words in his memoir conflicting with the experiences of crew who were with him.
Ultimately, O’Reilly is unlikely to face much, if any, of the punishment that Williams did. The nature of O’Reilly’s work, and the network he works for, thrive on controversy, as opposed to credibility.
In 2005, Stephen Colbert famously coined the term ‘truthiness,’ in which one has no facts to back up what one is saying, but it seems true. Over the course of the next decade, the term became increasingly relevant, as the cable news cycle promoted sound and fury and as the political blogosphere pushed us further and further from the middle, until we arrive at the present day, in which leading pundits pay no mind to facts, or credibility. In short, truth and truthiness are now confused for the same thing.
And why should they? O’Reilly’s core constituency is made up of people who already believe every word of declinism, leftist conspiracy, and the evils of the other that O’Reilly’s worldview entails. That O’Reilly’s exaggerations were brought to light by a left leaning magazine is proof positive for O’Reilly’s followers that there is a leftist conspiracy, and, in return for speaking the sort of truth that O’Reilly does, he shall be crucified by the forces of the left.
Ultimately, this episode is revealing only in that it shows the nature of twenty-first century’s definition of truth. While I suspect it has long been this way, now more than ever truth is what you choose to believe in this age of the vacuum chamber: it’s who you surround yourself with, the arguments that you subscribe to. All of us, myself included, are guilty of this to some degree.
That does not excuse us from the difficult and often unpleasant task of untangling truth from truthiness, from an examination of facts and consequences, of confronting worldviews outside of our own and striving to reconcile those worldviews into something workable.
Collegian Columnist Jesse Carey is all about disrupting the lame-stream media narrative, except for when it suits him, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Junotbend