There is a phenomenon in journalism I call the "Near Miss Cycle."
Two airplanes will nearly collide in some spectacular fashion: one pulling up just seconds before impact, for instance. Or the wing of one plane will actually clip another on the ground. Whatever the circumstances, the story for some reason makes the news.
Then the media suddenly becomes aware, again, of the concept of aeronautic "near misses," and starts reporting on other examples, of which there are many. Almost every day, it seems, at almost every airport. Maybe not as dramatic — certainly not as dramatic — as the instance that first caught the world's notice. But dramatic enough to feed this newfound interest.
For a while. Eventually, the sheer number of near collisions, none of them as compelling as the original, numb the audience, and the story dwindles away into nothingness, where it remains until the next spectacular near miss sets off the cycle once again.
This phenomenon is not limited to airplanes, alas.
We are seeing this in the wake of the Brian Williams melt-down.
Williams, for anybody reading this in 2035, is the superstar NBC network news anchor who lied about being aboard a helicopter hit by a rocket 12 years ago in Iraq, when he was actually in an entirely different helicopter that wasn't hit at all.
In the pre-Internet age this lie would have caused grumbling in a handful of people who heard the fabrication and knew better. But now, when negative details can find the wide audience hungry for them, such small bore blunders carry big consequences. Last month it caused an enormous scandal, causing NBC, eventually, to suspend Williams for six months. Though I would argue it was Williams' tin-eared attempt at damage control, his flea-bag "I forgot" non-apology that turned what might have been a passing embarrassment into a lingering if not endless career distorting disaster.
Much conversation about journalistic ethics ensued, which I didn't join into, because I believed that putting this into the realm of journalism is a category error. Williams wasn't reporting on news, he was talking about himself in a speech, and the truly valuable realization in all this to understand that the actual facts about Williams' life that he could have used to puff himself—his being super rich, super famous, super handsome, super important—were not enough, obviously. He felt obligated to invent heroic episodes to further enhance his already glittering reputation.
In that regard he is like many, perhaps most, men, who feed their egos at every turn, with facts if they can, with fantasy if those facts aren't handy. That sounds like I'm defending Williams, and I'm really not. I'm scrupulously honest, in part, because the fibbing of which Williams is guilty is so common and so cheezy. You could replace all network news anchors with sock puppets and I wouldn't mind. But if the new standard is that exaggerating braggarts shouldn't be allowed to hold their jobs, well, then a lot of offices will be empty.
Because attention, like other sublime substances, is addictive, and having a lot today, however much that is, can mean that you want a lot plus just a little bit more tomorrow. The implication in this scandal is that Williams is somehow unique here, and he's not.
But people missed that. They thought the Williams gaffe revealed something significant, something newsworthy, and so the cycle continues. Last week, it was VA secretary Robert McDonald lying—in a conversation with a homeless man no less—about being in the Special Forces. Now it's Bill O'Reilly, famous as a font of half-truths and self-inflating nonsense for years, suddenly finding his rampant puffery being fact-checked anew by Mother Jones. Why? O'Reilly fondness for mendacity hasn't changed. It's just that, in this stage of the Williams cycle, being an odious blowhard takes on a darker significance, the way squishy campus 1970s radicalism was, 30 years later, cast in the grim hues of terrorism. I imagine we'll have another month or two of the ponderous dinner speech braggadocio of TV stars being scrutinized as if they were State of the Union addresses. Until the public gags at the sheer quantity of the stuff, and the media moves on to meat more attractive. Adulation is addictive, like heroin. We shouldn't be surprised that people overdose and ruin themselves on it too.