Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Honesty in Public Discourse

You’re likely aware of the backstory to this piece: well-known news anchorman Brian Williams was caught telling stories. A generous interpretation would portray them as exaggerations; a harsher one a series of self-aggrandizing lies. Williams placed himself in the thick of the action while covering certain news stories, like the shooting down of a military helicopter and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when he was actually at a safe distance. Since his stories were recently debunked, in whole or in part, by others there at the time, he has been widely criticized, shamed, and mocked, and the public debate over the nature and reliability of modern news rages ever more fiercely.

He’s not the only public figure in hot water right now for playing fast and loose with the truth. Bill O’Reilly is also being called out for his history of adding, ahem, some ‘color’ (my term, not his) to his news stories. He’s repeatedly talked (bragged?) about ‘covering four wars with his pen’ (his words), including the war in the Falklands, when he was actually over a thousand miles away from the ‘active war zone’ (also his words, the phrase he used to describe his own location at the time) covering a demonstration in Buenos Aires.

But the O’Reilly case is different! many say. Brian Williams is a trusted news anchor, from whom people expect to get unvarnished facts, and they expect to get them because that’s what he promises to deliver. O’Reilly is a commentator, albeit on a popular news station. Yet he presents himself as a truth-teller, speaking from the ‘No Spin Zone’, constantly referring to his bona fides as a lifelong journalist. So his viewers do expect the same level of honesty from him as from Williams, be it the facts or his true political and moral opinions.

Bill O'Reilly dining with troops, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Bill O’Reilly dining with troops, image public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Instead of taking the snarky, self-righteous tone he’s adopted, using tactics of straw-manning and name-calling his critics and trying to obscure his tall tales with lame excuses, O’Reilly could just honestly admit that he used exaggerated or even just colorful language to add a sense of immediacy, urgency, or drama to his stories, and given his self-proclaimed role as a truth teller and ‘non-spinner’, admit that he might have misled his audience.

Rush Limbaugh, another famous commentator who’s often accused of lying and slander, likes to use the same excuse that his fans do when he gets caught: that he’s ‘just an entertainer’. Presumably, then, when he purposefully misrepresents the words, actions, and characters of his ideological opponents, he doesn’t really mean what he says. Or does he?

Rush Limbaugh / Sandra Fluke, image public domain via

One such case was that of Sandra Fluke, a law student and activist who testified before Congress regarding a proposed religious exemption to the government mandate that all health insurance policies must cover contraception. Fluke presented arguments, based on medical evidence and anecdotes of friends with gynecological and hormonal conditions, that birth control is essential preventative and therapeutic health care, especially for women, and as such, should be covered under all plans, public or private.

Limbaugh exploded. He called Fluke a slut and a prostitute and represented her as saying that ‘she must be paid to have sex’, and if so, she should provide sex tapes as public repayment for taxpayer money. Yet if you read Fluke’s own testimony, and read or listen to any of Fluke’s own discussion of birth control, it’s clear that she doesn’t mean any such thing, or says anything that can reasonably be construed as saying that paying for birth control is equal in any way to ‘paying for sex’. This would be as nonsensical as saying that to pay for an emergency room visit for a car crash victim amounts to ‘paying them to drive’ (and therefore they are obligated to be your chauffer?), or to pay for insulin for a diabetes sufferer is to ‘pay them to eat sweets’, or to pay the medical bills for the delivery of baby is to ‘pay for her to have sex’ (after all, that’s how she got pregnant) or ‘pay for her to have children’ (and therefore you have the right to put spycams in the nursery? Or make her child come over to do your chores?). After a storm of protest over his nasty (and pervy) rhetoric, Limbaugh apologized for calling her names and for ‘exaggerations to describe’ her personally. Yet he’s never, so far as I could discover, apologized for distorting and misrepresenting (two commonly used, slightly polite ways of saying ‘lying about’) her views on preventative healthcare on his radio show. Of the two, I argue that the name-calling is by far the lesser of the two: the slurs are unbelievable, and therefore perhaps possibly construed as satire. But the misrepresentation of her views is a lie that harms both her and the public, by slandering her and keeping important information from his audience, replacing it with falsities.

Limbaugh tells his viewers that he’s one of the most ‘honest‘ commentators out there, ‘huge on personal responsibility’ as he said in the same apology broadcast. He also says that he’s a satirist, that he uses ‘absurdity to illustrate the absurd’. It doesn’t appear to me as if he presents his take on Fluke’s testimony as satire: he seems to present it as a corollary of her arguments. The trouble with Limbaugh is that he slides back and forth from what he tries to call ‘satire’ to what he would call ‘the truth’ without any sort of clarification, any sort of signal to his audience so they can tell when he’s being factual, and when he’s uttering an absurdity to make a point. In researching this piece, I read quote after quote, transcript after transcript, of supposed satirical absurdities, facts, and half-truths all scrambled together will-nilly in each sentence, each paragraph, each entire show, generally with no discernible way to tell which was which. This gives him a general ‘out’ when it comes to saying whatever he wants without being called out for lying, which, in turns, makes every statement as credible as any other, which is not at all. Sorry, Rush. You can’t have it both ways.

(When I was doing research to refresh my memory on the case, I found that he had scrubbed his website of all transcripts and recordings of his actual remarks. It may be he was forced to do so as a result of his advertisers fleeing, or it may have been his own ass-covering move. Either way, this scrubbing does not represent evidence of his honesty or belief in ‘personal responsibility and accountability’, to say the least.)

So why bring up this old case again?

It’s to illustrate how and why so many of us are feeling so distrustful, so tired, so saddened, or (I think mostly) so jaded about honesty, and the lack thereof, in our public discourse. These three men, three widely admired, influential public figures present themselves as advocates for and providers of ‘the truth’: the straight newsman, the newsman-turned-commentator-on-a-news-network, and the straight commentator. All of them have been caught lying, some more than others, some more seriously, perhaps, than others. The way these three men have responded to being caught in lies and exaggerations reveal a lot about what they expect of themselves, and what they think we expect of them.

Brian Williams, of the three, has responded the best. He publicly apologized and admitted he made a mistake, admittedly in a rather defensive, perhaps self-excusing way. His inaccuracies may have been half-honest, in a sense, as he exaggerated his stories little by little over time with each re-telling, as human beings commonly do, just as Bill O’Reilly may have done. (I have been researching how memory works for another piece I’m working on, and how easy it is for certain people to create false memories, and to change certain aspects of a memory, especially when recalled and discussed repeatedly over a period of time. Stay tuned for more on that.) But he, like O’Reilly, should also have been fact-checking himself all along when re-telling such an important story after so many years, because that’s his self-imposed job: to stay faithful to the facts in a way the ordinary citizen doesn’t necessarily need to. As his friends and colleagues have stated, however, he alone, of these three, appears appropriately contrite, even ‘shattered’.

It seems clear that he’s aware of the wrong he’s done, and why it was wrong.

O’Reilly and Limbaugh, on the other hand, have been reacting very badly, as we have seen. They simply seem to have a different conception of what truth is, and what their relation to it should be. Is it because they consider themselves commentators first, and reporters of factual information second? Perhaps. But this makes no difference.

William Jennings Bryant, 1908, image Public Domain

If you promise your audience that you will tell the truth, that you should be trusted, then you have made it your duty to be truthful and trustworthy. I believe, further, that it becomes your duty in these circumstances to be a living example of truthfulness and trustworthiness: conduct discourse in an honest fashion, present your opponent’s views fairly and give them the benefit of the doubt, and debate and discuss their arguments on their own merits. If you want to tell the truth indirectly in satire, make clear what’s satire, and what’s not.

And if you get caught in a lie or an exaggeration, admit it. Your audience will thank you for your honesty, even as you make a mistake, since admitting it without excuses it proves your honesty all the more.

The discussion continues: On Jonathan Webber’s Discussion on Deception With Words: Honesty in Public Discourse Part II

*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes
*Also published at Darrow
*this piece has been lightly edited on June 8th, 2018 for clarity


Sources and Inspiration:

Corn, David. ‘Bill O’Reilly Responds. We Annotate’. Mother Jones, Feb 20th 2015, Sandra. Sandra Fluke Yestimony to US Congress, Feb 23, 2012….

Freed, Benjamin. ‘7 Questions for Travis Tritten, Reporter Who Debunked Brian Williams’s Helicopter Story’, Washingtonian, Feb 5th 2015.…Limbaugh, Rush. ‘Why I Apologized to Sandra Fluke’. The Rush Limbaugh Show, Mar 05 2012, Rush. Quote: ‘You know I have always tried to be honest with you…’ Wikiquote, from
The Rush Limbaugh Show, Oct 10th 2003

McCoy, Terrance. ‘Brian Williams Perhaps Misremembered Floating Dead Body and Gangs During Katrina Hotel…’ Washington Post Feb 10, 2015

Mahler, Jonathan, Ravi Somaiyia, and Emily Steele. ‘With an Apology, Brian Williams Digs Himself Deeper in Copter Tale’. New York Times, Feb 5, 2015

Reeve, Elspeth. ‘Rush Scrubs ‘Slut’ Comment, Demand for Fluke Sex Tapes’. The Wire, Mar 8 2012

Steel, Emily and Ravi Somaiyia. ‘Brian Willaims Suspended From NBC for Six Months Without Pay’, New York Times, Feb 10, 2015

Uygur, Cenk. ‘Bill O’Reilly Responds To Attacks Over Falkland Islands War Coverage Lies’.
The Young Turks, Feb 23rd, 2015.

2 thoughts on “Brian Williams, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Honesty in Public Discourse

  1. Pingback: O.P. Recommends: Malcolm Gladwell on Brian Williams, the Fungibility of Memory, and Journalistic Integrity | Ordinary Philosophy

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