The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The lesson Brian Williams can teach politicians (and all of us)

NBC News' Brian Williams. (Dave Allocca/Starpix via AP)
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I spent the past six days in Disney World on vacation, which gave me an entirely different perspective to view the downfall of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams than had I been at my duty station, fully immersed in every jot and tittle of the story minute by minute. And it left me with one fundamental conclusion: Everything always comes out.

What do I mean by that? That if you are lying or fudging the truth or obfuscating in some way shape or form and you are a public figure, there is a roughly zero percent chance you won't be called on it. There is simply no hiding things anymore. Technology has made it so that nothing ever disappears entirely. It's also made it possible for average people to communicate -- and call out -- politicians, reporters and celebrities who are telling something other than the whole truth.

How Williams's exaggerations about a helicopter trip in Iraq were exposed is instructive. It came via Facebook when someone in the chopper that actually came under fire noted in a comments section that Williams wasn't on board. Think about that: A comment on a Facebook post is what led to a six-month suspension -- and a decidedly uncertain future -- for the single most recognizable (and one of the best-paid) journalists in the country.

That scenario was unthinkable even 15  years ago. The only way Williams's tall tale on Iraq would have been found out is if someone on the chopper heard him tell the story -- either in person or second-hand -- and then was able to persuade a media outlet to cover the allegation that the anchor was either misremembering or not telling the truth. And, to be frank, it would have been a very high bar for the accuser to clear to get his side of the story aired, since Williams's reputation up to this point had been completely spotless.

Williams is far from the only high-profile person struggling with that changed dynamic. In the past two weeks, we have two examples from the world of politics.

* Ethan Czahor, hired to be the chief technology officer for Jeb Bush's presidential campaign-in-waiting, resigned after a bunch of dumb and borderline racist tweets emerged. Most of the dumb stuff Czahor did, he did when he was in college and in his early 20s -- a dumb time for most of us. He might have hoped it would all be forgotten -- or never found. Nope.  Nothing is ever forgotten or never found. (Czahor should know better; unlike Williams, he is a millennial who should grasp the nothing-is-ever-secret-or-hidden-for-long dynamic.)

* Rep. Aaron Schock's office panicked when WaPo's Ben Terris found out that the Illinois Republican had redone his congressional office in an homage to "Downton Abbey." That panic led to, you guessed it, revelations about offensive things Schock's press guy had said online. Which led to said press guy's resignation, a "Worst Week in Washington" victory and boatloads of negative publicity for Schock. Here's the thing: If you are going to redecorate your office in a "Downton Abbey"-like way, you need to accept that people are going to find out, and you need to be okay with that. I mean, come on.

These are the two most recent examples, but there are scads throughout politics (and media). I still vividly remember a consultant to Blair Hull insisting that the proceedings of his very contentious divorce would never come out during the 2004 Illinois Senate race. Then they did. And the world met Barack Obama. Anyone who has spent any time covering the nexus of politics and media over the past decade has their own version of my Blair Hull memory. They are legion.

The lesson from Williams's rapid fall is one we all should know by now but probably could do well to relearn. And that is: Anything you say or do publicly (and, increasingly, privately) can and will be found out -- especially if it's unsavory, untruthful or both. There are no secrets anymore. No exaggerations or fibs get passes. You are what you say, write, tweet or Snapchat.

What's amazing is that while Williams has experienced one of the most high-profile tumbles in recent memory, it's a certainty that in the future there will be more politicians, media types, football coaches, athletes and celebrities who make the same mistakes he has. We humans are an odd people.

(Note: I am a paid employee of NBC/MSNBC. I think I have met Williams once in passing, but I am certain he would not remember that.)

Brian Williams has been suspended from NBC News without pay for six months after several allegations of embellishing stories. But is the problem bigger than the man behind the anchor desk? The Post's Erik Wemple and broadcast news expert Jill Olmsted weigh in. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)