As news broke in February when NBC anchor Brian Williams got caught in a reporting fib, journalists and critics rushed to pass judgment.
The New York Times, for example, packed the newspaper with stories and editorials that carved a wide swath.
One pundit said Williams’ ego finally got the better of him: that he had been courting fame and was caught in his own braggadocio.
The French have an expression for it. At the tail end of the Middle Ages, combatants would attack fortresses with a homemade bomb called a petard.
The word to fart—péter—is the linguistic root.
Petards were grenades stuffed with gunpowder that ignited when lit with a fuse.
Sometimes the bomb would explode unpredictably and the expression that you were “hoisted by your own petard” means you were caught in a maelstrom of your own making.
Brian Williams was hoisted by his own petard.
Some suggested that Williams should be fired, others argued that forgiveness is the better approach, and another wondered whether Williams was a “victim” of the questionable human tendency to create false memories.
Williams’ pal Jon Stewart nimbly reframed the calamity by pointing out journalists had failed miserably in their lapdog coverage of the war in Iraq: the real scandal.
Reporters from all corners, from Fox News to the National Enquirer, lashed out bitterly.
But Stewart observed that the war in Iraq would have played out differently if the “media had applied this level of scrutiny to the actual war.”
At its heart, the Williams coverage is a textbook example of Schadenfreude.
Journalists delight in the humiliation of others: Schaden refers to harm or damage while Freude means happiness or joy.
Williams has been cuffed to the stocks—metaphorically speaking—where he is daily pilloried by his peers.
I wonder if the Schadenfreude stems from jealousy over Williams’ celebrated status and school-boy looks.
Or maybe it’s the despair reporters feel over the crush of entertainment and news nonsense that has replaced hard-won investigative journalism.
Most young adults get their news from the Daily Show—a self-proclaimed entertainment program interwoven with fake news and real news. Fibs are accepted.
The fall from grace isn’t really about Brian Williams: it’s about the fall of the state of journalism.