People sometimes exaggerate; and the recent example of a national news anchor “conflating” his wartime experience illustrates the point that it doesn’t matter whether you’re flat broke or make $10 million a year, it pays to be honest. Today’s controversy is coincident with the death of a former Oregon congressman who lost his job when he falsely claimed to have been a special forces soldier in Korea when, in fact, he was never in Korea or any branch of special forces. Lies have a way of catching up with us.
Long service as a city manager has taught me to operate under the assumption that almost everything I say is subject to some form of scrutiny or fact-checking. Writing this column is a relatively permanent record of my thoughts, so I try very hard to make sure that what I am writing is accurate or at least an honest statement of my beliefs. I think most of us understand the difference between an honest mistake and an outright lie. Honestly expressing our thoughts is a way to test them against what others know or believe and should be encouraged as a way to increase understanding. Telling lies is another matter.
Our currency as public employees is trust between us and our citizens. When we earn that trust, we receive the support and resources we need to do our job. If any of us violate it, we all pay a price. Consequently, disciplinary action for lying will always be more severe than simply facing up to a mistake or misbehavior. Even if a lie buys some short-term relief, it will usually be discovered and compound the misery.
The problem of people trying to cash in on fictitious wartime exploits is severe and common enough that national legislation in the form of the Stolen Valor Act was passed in 2013 to make it a federal crime to fraudulently claim to have received an award for valor with the intent of receiving any “tangible benefit.” I recall a police officer in a small town where I once worked who was fired for a number of transgressions that included making claims about service in Vietnam, where he never served. Telling tall stories may be harmless in some settings, but there can be real consequences for doing it in the workplace.
I don’t know whether Brian Williams will be able to continue as a national news anchor in the wake of his apology. His credibility is badly damaged in a profession that already suffers from credibility problems. I rarely watch network news, and I won’t be changing my viewing habits because of this incident. I do wonder why someone in such a visible position would tell an untrue story when the facts could be so easily checked. This example serves as a good reminder to me of how important it is to be careful about what you claim regarding your own exploits and let your actions speak for themselves.