Is Brian Williams the product of a culture that increasingly confuses reality and entertainment?
Or just another person who stretched a glimpse of danger into a tall tale of peril, a practice as old as war and adventure itself?
We've spent the last few weeks beating up on Williams, who may well be no more guilty than numerous other journalists or celebrities (who really knows how much of what we believe about history is true) except that he had the temerity to tell his lies too often, and too publicly.
At the same time, we seem to cherish the blurring of lines and the drug of self-aggrandizement.
The fact that we now "friend" and "follow" our social contacts and acquaintances rather than simply networking with them shows the extent to which our desire for connection hinges on approval and envy rather than ease of communication. A vacation or concert can't be enjoyed without posting photos, and a news event can't transpire without our witty or wise observation in 130 characters.
Our appetite grows for "reality shows" that pretend to be unscripted while real news shows and newspapers struggle for audiences. Major elections like the one for New York mayor elicit petty turnout, and the 2012 election for president saw a lower turnout than the 2004 race. When we do vote, even as we complain about Congress, we fail to exact much accountability, returning 90 percent to their seats for more of the same.
Despite our own increasing narcissism and disregard for silly things like integrity and honesty, we are outraged to see these qualities displayed by someone in the public eye.
It shouldn't be a surprise at all. After all, jet captains who saved their passengers or doctors exposed to Ebola notwithstanding, people mostly do not end up in the spotlight by accident. Narcissism, in various degrees, propels people into public office, the arts or journalism, and in some cases gratification can be in painfully short supply. After all, the bar for what we consider interesting seems to be reset daily.
Brian Williams rose to the top of his field through hard work and skill, but apparently was still plagued by some sense of inadequacy that compelled him to embellish details of at least one account of his experiences, the now-infamous helicopter ride with U.S. forces during the invasion of Iraq.
The result was a case study in graduated offenses: Clips show that the more Williams talked about the incident, without being challenged, the more he exaggerated the level of danger he faced, from being part of a squad of aircraft that came under fire to being in the actual chopper hit by rocket fire, and waiting for the cavalry to come to his rescue.
Williams knew that numerous soldiers with him that day knew the truth, but no one called him on it, so the bolder he became and the deeper he fell into hubris. In his first telling of the incident from the battlefield in 2003, Williams said he was part of a group of helicopters and one of those ahead of him was hit.
By the time he sat down for an interview with David Letterman a decade later, he had not only materialized inside the damaged chopper, but had spent a terrified night inside enemy territory waiting for the cavalry to arrive. (They were actually grounded by weather.)
For all that time, the troops who flew with him that day were either unaware of his exaggerations or chose to be silently complicit, perhaps until they were fed up, and brought down the boom on Williams' career.
"Sorry dude, I don't remember you being on my aircraft," wrote the flight engineer from the stricken chopper, Lance Reynolds in an open letter to Williams. Another soldier has said publicly that he has been calling Williams out on this for years, to no avail.
The incident is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's claim in 2008 that as secretary of state she came under sniper fire in Bosnia on a trip as First Lady in the '90s. It was later revealed that nothing of the sort happened, and in fact her trip was uneventful.
As former White House correspondent Joseph Curl pointed out in a Washington Post column, the Hillary's betrayal of truth is the more stinging, since Williams is "just a guy on TV. He's not even a reporter, he just reads a 20-second intro into a story gathered by real journalists."
On the other hand, Clinton has a reasonable chance, perhaps the best of anyone in the still-hypothetical field, of becoming our next president. To think she could as easily lie as say hello, about something that didn't matter, and count on those around her to cover it up makes you wonder how forthright she's capable of being about matters of urgency that are still in the dark.
Alex de Toqeville said the people get the government they deserve. It's also true of other public figures. They are what we make them, what we demand them to be.
And that's generally not much.
Keep in mind that for years now Americans in the key viewing demographic been learning more about current events from satire than from serious news sources, which makes the question of who will succeed Jon Stewart on Comedy Central's fake newscast a more pressing question than who will succeed Williams on the Nightly News.
Buzzfeed, with its listicles, gifs and cat videos interspersed with news-tinged articles, is poised to reach 200 million unique visitors per month. CNN's site only gets 95 million, and the New York Times 75 million.
Maybe there's a sure fire way for us to get public figures to stop treating us like fools: Stop acting that way.