What an unfortunate time to be Brian Williams. Or really anybody who screws things up in this new digital age of public persecution we’re living in.
I wonder if we’ll look back and note this as an historically unfair period of time. An era where our societal rules and judgement had not yet caught up with the speed and transparency enabled by technology. Two recent articles I read really drove this point home for me. The first was the New York Times article, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life”. It describes the story of the PR professional who tweeted a joke in poor taste to her small group of 170 Twitter followers, hopped on a flight to South Africa, and landed eleven hours later to discover her tweet had gone viral. She was swiftly fired from her job and now finds herself unemployable years later because a Google search quickly reveals her to be “toxic”. The second article I read was a Rolling Stone analysis of the Brian Williams scandal, called “Brian Williams and the Smoking Gun That Isn’t” that asks the question why we’re so swift to believe the version of events that damns the beloved news anchor.
These days, we’re an angry mob with digital pitchforks. When the internet smells blood, we jump on with angry (and often uninformed) perspectives in a race to have an opinion on an unfolding issue on Twitter or Facebook. On holidays like Martin Luther King Day, we actually hunt down brands for sport. We eagerly await for them to make a tasteless promotional tweet, then broadcast it to the world as an example of how out of touch they are.
Forget the fact that a few years ago, we were the ones demanding that any brand worth paying attention to needs to reach people by actively tweeting, posting, connecting in social media. We tell brands they have to create 365 days worth of content and then lampoon them when they inevitably make missteps (because brands are, in the end, controlled by people).
But let’s focus back in on Brian Williams. He is currently in the midst of the 21st-century death spiral – the apology, followed by the suspension, followed by the investigation, followed by the inevitable end of his career. He isn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last. In this age of information, where it is easier than ever to air someone’s dirty laundry out in public, we’re eventually going to have to decide as a society whether our current threshold of expectations from our public (and not-so-public) figures is too high. Should people be fired for a dumb tweet? For an exaggeration of the truth? And are we due for a rebalancing in the court of public opinion? Just because thousands angrily chime in on Twitter and Facebook as a matter of course, does that require swift irrevocable action?
I get my news from all over the place, but I really enjoy the ritual of watching the evening news – something I surely inherited from my father. I think Brian Williams is a great news anchor. I am not sure the extent to which he lied or didn’t lie, but I don’t know that we should be so quick to damn him. I do know that we should stop and ask ourselves whether the self-righteous satisfaction that we feel, knowing that a wrong has been righted, is more valuable than the contribution that Williams makes to reporting the news and informing the public.
During this time where the digital mob has the power to end careers, reverse corporate decisions, and bring about swift and sometimes brutal change, I think we’re going to need to figure out a way to ensure that the reaction to that judgement is carefully considered and measured before taking action… or I’m afraid we’re going to lose some good well-intentioned people in the process. We all make mistakes… it’s part of being human – it’s only a question of whether or not yours goes viral on the internet.