retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

I think it was Mark Twain who once wrote, "If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything."

Someone should have told Brian Williams.

Perhaps you've heard about the trouble in which the NBC News anchor finds himself. In 2003, while covering the war in Iraq, he was in a helicopter that ended up landing because the one in front of it took on enemy fire. Over the years, as Williams moved from reporting to the anchor desk and became the face of NBC News, the story got embellished and he started talking about how he was on the helicopter than got hit by RPG fire. The problem was, there were other people on that helicopter, and the other helicopters in Iraq that day. People talked. Eventually, the real story got printed and posted, and suddenly the veracity of one of the guys who delivers the news to us each night was called into serious question.

The truth, as they say, was out there. And then Brian Williams went on the air and made it worse, blaming his misstatements on confusion and time and the "fog of war."

Now, Brian Williams doesn't just look like he puffed himself up, like he didn't let the truth get in the way of a good yarn. Now he looks like something a lot worse. Like some of the people he covers, who dissemble rather than state facts and deal with truth. That's not really a good place for a journalist to be. It leaves everything you say open to question, and certainly gives ammunition to rivals and critics.

I have no idea if Brian Williams' career will survive this. If I had to guess, there will be a suspension and maybe a round of redemptive interviews in which he'll have to eat a helicopter full of crow. It's kind of too bad; I've never met the man, but he always struck me as a decent, NASCAR-loving New Jersey native who was smart enough to know he'd hit life's jackpot, and wise enough not to take it for granted. (He lives one town over from me in Connecticut. A salesman at a men's clothing store there once told me that Williams was an incredibly nice man who could afford to spend a lot more on clothes than he did. That means something, though I'm not exactly sure what.)

But there is an important business lesson and life lesson here, and Mark Twain offered it a long time ago. Tell the truth.

The subset of that lesson is that if you don't tell the truth, the internet will almost certainly expose you for it. Fast. Brian Williams had been telling the same story for a dozen years, and it seems like his credibility got undermined in about a dozen minutes. (It is a shame that we need that subset. But apparently we do.)

That can happen to anyone. It can happen to any business. But only if you don't tell the truth.

Trust, like the soul, never returns once it goes. That's the Latin proverb.

It is an Eye-Opening lesson that Brian Williams may learn the hard way.
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