When you Lose your Credibility – Thoughts on Brian Williams, and the Significance of Ethos


Rhetoric is… a good man speaking well.
Quintilian

(re. ethos): “Virtue, then, is of two sorts, virtue of thought [e.g., wisdom, comprehension, intelligence] and virtue of character [e.g., generosity, temperance, courage, justice]. Virtue of thought arises and grows mostly from teaching, and hence needs experience and time. Virtue of character [i.e., of ethos] results from habit [ethos]; hence its name ‘ethical’, slightly varied from ‘ethos’. Hence it is also clear that none of the virtues of character arises in us naturally.” 
Aristotle

If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
Matthew 6:23

———————

It’s ancient wisdom. If the task is to communicate, then the one communicating needs to be believable. It is pretty much a requirement in the persuasion arena. This “believability” is connected to “ethos,” referring to the “character of the speaker; credibility” Aristotle included it as one of his three primary means of persuasion (along with logos, and pathos).

Brian Williams in the War Zone
Brian Williams in the War Zone

The current Brian Williams saga (re. his in the helicopter in the war zone claim) is a pretty clear example of what happens when a person who is perceived to be credible — (credible = competent, honest, trustworthy) – loses such credibility.

Quite a case can be made that we almost “naturally/automatically” live and speak and act in ways that make people lose their trust in us. To quote the good Doctor House, “Everybody lies.”

I just read a review of a new book The Devil Wins on Slate: You Lie! A tricky new book on the history and philosophy of deceit by Katy Waldman. The article, and apparently the book (I’ve downloaded the sample pages, but haven’t yet read them) make the case that House was right – “everybody lies.” From the book/article:

A study indicates that the average person composes three deceits for every 10 minutes of conversation—“and even more when we use email and text messaging.”

It seems that one of our tasks is to aim to do so less and less.

So, back to Brian Williams. His problem is obvious – journalists are expected to be truthful and trustworthy. It’s part of their “job description.” One task of a good journalist is to find out when others are not being honest. If the journalist is dishonest himself/herself, it is a long slog back to credibility.

Yes, it is possible to regain that credibility – to earn it back. For example, Nina Totenberg was famously fired for plagiarism early in her career. Her later reflection is a classic: “I have a strong feeling that a young reporter is entitled to one mistake and to have the holy bejeezus scared out of her to never do it again.” (Read about this here).

But, thinking of Brian Williams, at this moment we are all our own Diogenes. From the article:

Diogenes the Cynic, lamp in hand under dazzling sunshine, patrolled the agora for evidence of one honest man. He found a bunch of guys who said they fit the bill, which is how he knew they didn’t.

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