Brian Williams, Jonah Lehrer, and kleptomania

By now, who hasn’t heard the news about NBC anchor Brian Williams? That he lied multiple times, over a period of many years, about his helicopter being hit by ground fire in Iraq. That he apparently lied about many other incidents, as well. I have nothing more to add to this discussion by way of facts. Just google “Brian Williams,” and the Internet will bring you quickly up to date.

But I do have something to add to the conversation by way of background and insight. I did my English Ph.D. dissertation on the subject of plagiarism. In August 2012, a few months after I started blogging, I wrote a post about Jonah Lehrer, one of my favorite authors, who was accused of fabricating quotes in his book Imagine.

My post must have been quite different from the rest of the online conversation on this topic, because it “went viral,” as they say. I didn’t realize it until months later, when I finally figured out Twitter and stumbled across all the tweets and retweets of my blog. My post was also “Freshly Pressed,” the only time I’ve ever achieved that distinction.

When I heard the news about Brian Williams a few days ago, I immediately thought of Jonah Lehrer—and all the other talented people whose lies have so puzzled their fans. Why on earth did they do it? The most convincing answer I can find comes from an article I cited in my dissertation (and which I discuss in the Jonah Lehrer post) that compares plagiarism to the mental disorder of kleptomania (compulsive stealing of things you don’t need and can otherwise afford to buy).

Brian Williams’ lies seem to fit the same pattern. Is Williams a pathological liar (à la Jon Lovitz’s Saturday Night Live character Tommy Flanagan, who mentioned his wife, Morgan Fairchild, about every other sentence)? Only some sort of compulsive disorder makes any sense to me.

If you’re interested in reading my Jonah Lehrer post, you can link to it here:

About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
This entry was posted in Books and reading, Life, News, Popular culture, Television, Writing, blogging and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Brian Williams, Jonah Lehrer, and kleptomania

  1. mworfolk says:

    I’m fascinated that you wrote your dissertation on plagiarism! As someone who has taught plenty of first year composition, it’s a subject close to my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, close to mine, too. I always feel so torn between my compassion for the students, who do it for a variety of reasons, and the integrity of the institution that I have to uphold as a member of the faculty. Dealing with plagiarism is the least favorite part of my job.


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