My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:
The ongoing saga of Brian Williams’ downfall has attracted the riveted attention of voyeurs who delight in the misfortune of the rich and powerful, but his story is a troubling instance of the widespread decline in basic honesty that is pervading our culture.
Brian Williams was an unqualified American success. He worked his way up through broadcast journalism to the pinnacle of that profession as the anchor of NBC Nightly News. For over a decade, Williams built a relationship of trust with his viewers as he read the news in his baritone voice. In an increasingly diverse media market, the nightly news anchors of the major broadcast networks clung to the aura that their product was the gold standard of journalism that was above reproach.
Unfortunately, being at the pinnacle of his career and one of the most well-known people in the nation was not enough for Williams. He had to embellish his accomplishments. He lied. Williams told a story for years about being in a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire and forced to land. In fact, the story was a complete fabrication meant only, it seems, to feed Williams’ ego.
Williams had been telling this story for years in public settings that many people apparently knew was false. It is also emerging that Williams probably lied about several other stories that he has been telling for years to enhance his own biography. It is truly remarkable that someone of such a high profile as Brian Williams, whose entire stature is built upon the notion that he can be trusted to give America the “real” story, was able to spin lies for years without anyone calling him on it until now.
Or perhaps it is not that remarkable given the acceptance of dishonestly that has become commonplace in our culture. In times past, a lie of the sort Williams told would have been an immediate cause for the disgraceful permanent termination of his employment and discrediting of his entire body of work. In this instance, Williams told the lie for a decade and it was only after days of equivocating and some voluntary time off that NBC suspended Williams for six months presumably in the hope that his career can be salvaged.
Lest we here in West Bend judgmentally guffaw at the lax moral standards of those Manhattan elitists, the same sort of cultural rot is apparent right here at home.
As reported by Miranda Paikowski, a student journalist who is already more trustworthy than Brian Williams, in The West Bend Current, at least 22 students in two separate classes were caught cheating on a test in an Advanced Placement Statistics class last month.
The test was a two-day test. After the first day, some student found the test and answers online and passed around. As a result many of the students entered the second day of the test fully armed with the answers. In short, they cheated. By any normal definition of the word, these students cheated on the test.
According to the district handbook published on their website, “any student caught cheating will receive a grade of zero on the assignment or exam.” But that is not what happened. Instead, all of the students were forced to retake the exam – including those who did not cheat the first time. No punishment was meted out by the school or district.
The school district has given two explanations for the lack of punishment. In Paikowski’s story, they claimed that no punishment would be given to the students because it was their first offense. These kids are almost adults at the end of their high school careers who are in an advanced math class. They are not stupid and they knew they were cheating. The fact that it is the first time they were caught cheating is no excuse not to follow the district’s written policy to give them a zero on the exam.
The second reason given was that it was not really cheating. According to West Bend High Schools Assistant Principal David Uelmen, “As far as somebody going in there and flat out cheating we came to the determination that did not exactly happen. Nobody went into that test with the answers in hand.” Huh? So the fact that the students got the full test online and memorized it makes it not cheating, but if they had written a cheat sheet it would have been cheating? That is almost Clintonian in its parsing of events.
These kids were caught cheating. It is not the end of the world. Instead of giving them swift, fair, and just punishment from which they could learn that cheating is intolerable, the district is pampering them and teaching them that cheating is acceptable as long as you are one of the smart kids, and you can find a technicality, and it is your first time, and… and… and… By their actions, the West Bend High Schools are helping create a generation of Brian Williamses who will treat the truth as something to be discarded when it is inconvenient to one’s personal advancement.
We learn at an early age that telling the truth is important. If we still adhere to that principle and want a future where the truth is respected, we must treat it as such.