Brian Williams
Brian Williams

As most readers undoubtedly know by now, NBC has suspended Nightly News anchor Brian Williams for six months, without pay, as punishment for serial falsehoods including, most notoriously, his repeated claim that he had been in a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq, when in fact he was only in a helicopter that flew to the crash site later.

Or is it really punishment? If NBC really wanted to make Williams pay for his contemptible behavior, it would have fired him outright, devoted an episode of the Nightly News and a primetime special to intensive exposure of Williams’ repeated self-aggrandizing lies and his egregious damage to the integrity of the network’s news operation, and instituted a Brian Williams Award for the most spectacular self-serving public lie each week. (Of course, President Obama would always win, but it would still be an edifying exercise.)

Williams will lose a few million dollars during his forced vacation, but he has many, many millions of dollars to console him. The suspension really is no punishment at all.

Instead, it’s clear that NBC simply decided to hide him for a while to let the entire episode cool down and the public move on to other concerns. That is characteristic of our present culture in a couple of very important ways.

First, it reflects a huge amount of cynicism and lack of scruples. NBC does not appear to be ashamed of Williams, as it should be. The network, after all, let him continue to anchor the news program even after the revelations of his lies came to light. It was only when Williams failed to generate sympathetic defenses from the rest of the press, and became strictly an embarrassment to the network, that the power brokers suspended him.

Note, however, that it was not any sense of moral outrage or even institutional embarrassment that prompted NBC to suspend Williams; it was the fact that the show’s ratings plummeted by 36 percent after the revelation that its anchor was a serial liar. Only then did NBC kick him to the curb, and even then only as a temporary measure.

The network simply went into damage-control mode, removing Williams from the public eye. If, in the next six months, no obvious replacement comes to the fore, hey surely will restore Williams to his anchor desk, where he will give a seemingly sincere apology (having already apologized on-air on last Wednesday night’s program). If the viewers return, Williams will be back to normal and his lies will be effectively forgotten.

This is the second way the Williams affair reflects the tenor of the times: we have so much public misbehavior that a standard scandal-response model has developed, a model that relies on the very fact that the nation’s celebrities are so prone to ill-behavior that a new scandal will always be along shortly. In addition, the presence of an increasingly tight-knit relationship between the nation’s elites in all areas—government, business, media, education, and mainline Protestant and liberal Catholic clergy—ensures control over just what the public will hear, and for how long they will hear it.

Membership in good standing in the tight-knit national elite is critical to the process: just try to imagine how quickly Williams would have been slaughtered if he had been a political conservative instead of a leftist in good standing. The mind reels.

With Williams’s membership in the liberal elite beyond question, he benefited from their protection. Thus, as with the Obama administration’s many notorious scandals, we are treated to a highly scripted Kabuki dance in which the person caught doing wrong denies the truth until obvious proof is offered, then pretends to be sorry (or in Obama’s case, attacks the attackers, an option available only to persons of his level of power and ruthlessness). Once the facts become undeniable, those who should hold that person to account (NBC in Williams’s case, and the press and Congress in Obama’s case) pretend to be shocked and sorrowful over the offense, and a person in authority makes a gesture to put off any real action and give the public time to become distracted by the next scandal (NFL players’ physical assaults, Kanye West’s award show offenses, the Jackie Robinson West Little League cheating scandal, ‘Suge’ Knight’s murder charge, etc., ad infinitum, all in the last few days) and forget about what has happened. Soon, the scandal fever dies down, and things eventually return to the status quo ante.

But only for the person accused of the scandal. For the American people, the endless succession of scandals is demoralizing, as it shows them just how corrupt and heedless the nation’s authorities have become, and how utterly powerless the public is to do anything about it.