The management of NBC News announced on Feb. 10 that Brian Williams, the award-winning anchor of its top-rated NBC Nightly News, had been suspended for misrepresenting “events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear,” said the management, “that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues.”
It’s hard to disagree with NBC’s conclusion that Mr. Williams’s actions were “wrong and completely inappropriate.” By reiterating stories that he knew to be false, or at least should have known to be false, Mr. Williams seriously compromised his credibility as an honest broker of the news. The likelihood that every one of us is guilty of some form of hyperbolic self-aggrandizement does not excuse Mr. Williams’s actions, nor does it mean that he should not be held accountable.
Our shared experience of human weakness, however, should in some discernible way temper our response to Mr. Williams, yet it appears to have had little effect. As much as Mr. Williams is the protagonist in the middle of his third act, it is also true that there is a powerful antagonist at work. In the days immediately following the disclosure, a self-righteous mob of torch-bearing Twitter-azzi and latter-day Thomas Putnams were intent on immolating Mr. Williams. They have very nearly succeeded. Rather conveniently, the phrase “off with his head” contains fewer than 140 characters.
This all seems very familiar, doesn’t it? As David Brooks noted in his column in The New York Times on Feb. 10, nowadays “when somebody violates a public trust, we try to purge and ostracize him. A sort of coliseum culture takes over, leaving no place for mercy.... The pounding cry for resignation builds until capitulation comes.”
But is this public shaming a proportionate response? Must every misstep by a public figure result in this kind of behavior, from which so many of us seem to draw such perverse satisfaction? The answer, of course, is no, and there is a way to stop it. As René Girard, the Franco-American literary critic, has observed, it is only forgiveness “that is capable of stopping once and for all the spiral of reprisals, which of course are sometimes interrupted by unanimous expulsions, but violently and only temporarily.” In other words, tempering our judgment with mercy is the only way to stop the orgy of public shaming that needlessly destroys lives and communities.
Perhaps we should also bear this in mind as we consider the life of Blessed Junípero Serra, as Jim McDermott, S.J., writes in this issue. The fact that Blessed Junípero was a flawed human being, beset by some of the more odious prejudices of his time, does not mean that his legacy is irredeemable. The chief requirement for sainthood is holiness, not perfection, and those two are in no way the same thing for us mere creatures.
At press time, it appears that Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host, is being readied for the sacrificial pyre. Slate’s headline on Feb. 22 was so familiar it’s practically a cliché: “Seven CBS Staffers Discredit Bill O’Reilly’s ‘War Zone’ Claims.” Here we go again. I have no idea what Mr. O’Reilly did or didn’t do; I’m not even sure that I care. But I do know that whatever happens during this latest round of scarlet lettering, we would do well to remember, as David Brooks wrote, that “the civic fabric would be stronger if, instead of trying to sever relationships with those who have done wrong, we tried to repair them, if we tried forgiveness instead of exiling.”
“Public Shaming Gives Way to Public Forgiveness”; now that would be breaking news.