Why did NBC News anchor Brian Williams, arguably America’s most established newscaster (marked by a recent $50 million dollar contract extension), feel compelled to lie multiple times on national television?
The 17th-century epic poem Paradise Lost by
John Milton provides insight into Williams’ surprising blunders and
other human sins. The character of Eve in Paradise Lost is strikingly
similar to Brian Williams, providing a model of his folly.
After ten years as anchor and managing editor of NBC News, Williams was suspended for six months after lying multiple times about taking RPG fire while covering the Iraq war. During a 2013 interview, Williams stated, “Two of our four helicopters were hit, including the one that I was in,” after noting in 2007 that, “I looked down the tube of an RPG that had been fired at us.” These accounts were challenged by flight engineer Lance Reynolds who stated that Williams’ chopper followed “30 to 60 minutes behind” the Chinook helicopter that actually took fire. Closer vetting of other reports suggest that Williams also exaggerated his observations of the Berlin Wall’s fall and events surrounding Hurricane Katrina, while also asserting false ties to Navy Seal Team Six who killed Osama Bin Laden. What possessed him to lie so often?
Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, first published in
1667, concerns the nature of sin and the origin of evil. Over 1,000
lines of verse describe the infiltration of Satan into heaven and retell
the biblical Adam and Eve story, all to explore the sources of sin and
evil. Milton’s stated aim for the poem was to “justify the ways of God
to men” (I, 26).
A relatively simple plot provides for one of the clearest platforms in literature to study why people sin. Milton asserts that humans must choose to sin. Sinning is an act of free will between conflicting human powers. The resulting products of poor choices are evil and tragedy. Humans can be surrounded by circumstances that encourage sin, but ultimately the moral choice to sin or not to sin is their own. Processing a moral choice, contemplation of “right” or “wrong” action, is what Greek philosopher Aristotle named proairesis. No circumstance is inherently “good” or “bad,” only the choice made—a power unique to humans.
In Paradise Lost, God places this freedom of choice squarely in Eve’s hands:
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell. (III, 102)
I formed them free and free they must remain
Till they enthrall themselves… (III, 124-125)
With this great power of choice, Eve cannot resist biting the apple of knowledge. The choice of sin is too enticing—to know more, to be ever greater. The impulse to sin is a product of self-deception, an idea explored by scholar Stanley Fish in the book Surprised by Sin. Eve is not sure why she disobeys God or why she deceives Adam by not telling him honestly about what she has done to maintain advantage over him.
Brian Williams acts exactly the same way. His inner
self, his ego, could not resist the opportunity for a bit more adulation
and power. He deceives himself and others, completely of his own free
will, and this sin spawns evil.
It also makes him quite human. In fact, Milton might argue that Williams strikes the heart of human nature, just as Eve did. Redemption and growth are other aspects of human nature explored in Paradise Lost. After the fall (and the resulting evil), Eve becomes more human and begins to “suffer for truth’s sake.” Sin and evil clarify poor choices and limit dream-like deceptions, making it harder to fool oneself a second time. In Milton’s words:
This having learned, though hast attained the sum
Deeds to thy knowledge answerable, add faith,
Add virtue, patience, temperance…
…then wilt thou not be loath
To leave this Paradise, but shalt possess
A paradise within thee, happier far.
Maybe with his newly discovered freedom, Brian Williams will discover genuine wisdom, faith, virtue and humility—a paradise within himself. He has fallen, but his fall develops an innate humanity, like it does for us all.
Lee Miller graduated from Cornell University and has taught writing for over 10 years at the secondary and post-secondary levels. He has published three books, including the historical /spiritual novel, Kali Sunset.