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Brian Williams and the Temptation of Exaggeration


Brian Williams recently told the nation that a helicopter he had been traveling in during the invasion of Iraq had been forced down by a rocket-propelled grenade.  As everyone now knows, the NBC Nightly News anchor exaggerated the extent to which his helicopter took enemy fire.  Now he faces a "fact-checking inquiry" regarding the Iraq incident, his reporting during Hurricane Katrina, and other issues that arise during the investigation.  He has announced a voluntary leave of absence, and his professional future is in doubt.


While many are debating Williams's actions, I'd like to focus on his motivations.  He had clearly climbed to the top rung of his professional ladder.  His nightly broadcast was the top-rated newscast on television.  He achieved rock-star status, hosting Saturday Night Live and appearing on late-night comedy shows.  He was trusted by three-fourths of the viewing audience, and was recently ranked one of the most trusted people in America. 


Yet his achievements were not enough for him.  His exaggerations were an apparent effort to make himself even more historic or heroic.  If Brian Williams was the only celebrity to sacrifice personal character for cultural status, I wouldn't be writing this Cultural Commentary.  But his story is far from unique.


Richard Nixon's presidential reelection was virtually assured before some of his staff broke into Democratic Party headquarters and cost him the presidency.  James Frey wrote a memoir of his experience with addiction, topping the New York Times bestseller list 15 straight weeks before sections were found to be fabricated.  Alan Malarkey says he made up his bestseller, "The boy who came back from heaven," because "I thought it would get me attention."


Significant biblical characters exhibit the same need for more.  King David had all a man should want before his affair with Bathsheba stained his legacy for 30 centuries.  Solomon was granted inestimable wisdom and wealth, but his desire for still more led to horrific immorality and idolatry.  In the early church, Ananias and Sapphira wanted credit for more than they gave and became a parable on the perils of pride (Acts 5:1-11).


It's been said, "I am not who I think I am.  I am not who you think I am.  I am who I think you think I am."  Many people live with a deep-seated sense of inadequacy and a constant need to prove themselves.  No matter what they do, it's not enough.  A dear friend suggested to me at lunch yesterday that confidence is not the result of success.  We can never have enough success today to be assured of success tomorrow.  Rather, confidence is a decision we make regardless of circumstances.  Success is its result, not its cause.


Christians of all people should be confident, because our Father is omnipotent and his Holy Spirit lives in us.  The question is not who we impress today, but whose we are.  Tim Tebow was right: "We never become who God created us to be by trying to be like everybody else." (Tweet this)


The psalmist could say, "My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 121:2).  Can you?



Publication date: February 10, 2015


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