ecades ago I was sent to Iraq to cover a major earthquake as well as a wave of civil unrest that together would usher in that country’s Islamic revolution. I stayed at the home of my agency’s full-time correspondent, an astute Pakistani. While he was in charge of the major daily events, I was sent out to forage for “color,” Tehran tidbits that might supplement our coverage. The best I could manage in the first few days was a conversation, in English, with the owner of a local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. He explained he was losing customers because the regime’s night-time curfew (the Shah was still in power and Islamic codes months away). It wasn’t a very sexy story for a city in trouble. A week later I was back in Rome, and a few weeks after that the Iranian crisis began in earnest, eventually leading to the toppling of the Shah and the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
As events unfolded and grew in harshness I began strangely pining for my place in action that during my time there hadn’t existed. This craving to borrow led to a bizarre story about riding in a jeep with a group of radicals playing rock music. Yes, I had seen a jeep. Yes, boom boxes blared in Tehran. The rest was cocktail party fiction in answer to the question, “How was it in Tehran?”
I told the story several times to friends over the winter, always with a sober expression, to inject palpable dread. They were impressed. The story also served me well in social circles, and I stuck with it shamelessly — until our Pakistani correspondent was arrested and briefly jailed. That event shocked the lie out of my system. Guilt intervened.
Journalistic lies and embellishment are predicated on two fundamental human needs. The first is to somehow figure into the tragedy of others, essentially to matter; the second is to make up peril so that listeners will sympathize, empathize and confer respect — since physical harm is the most palpable of perils. There is a third component, an adjunct to the first two: ego, but ego of a particular kind, the wish to invent participation in conflict or civil strife to then allow for false modesty, as in: “That was nothing. Others had it far worse.”
This deference within self-created myth makes the myth itself all the more powerful because the teller can apply the duping false modesty that many find immensely appealing. The trick of the self-styled hero is not to appear as one (while actual heroes, many traumatized, usually say nothing). Established celebrities are all the more tempted to include themselves in little but scary events to burnish “being there” credentials. But once they create their own jeep story, whether a helicopter under fire or witnessing a massacre, there’s no going back. The cocktail party chatter is spread and they’re stuck with the dimensions of the legend they’ve spread.
I back away from my banal jeep fiction early enough to mumble my way forward. NBC anchor Brian Williams did no such backing away, which over years transformed his own myth into salted pillar of false modesty that he directed toward other, braver men he worked hard to praise. He ran with, and stuck with, his jeep story — never mind the existence of real people who could dispute it.
Shakespeare (among others) long ago underscored the weakness and vanity of humans, as well as their tendency to lie, cheat, invent, skew in causes they see as noble, usually because they somehow figure in them. We seek to be liked, or feared. Social media, which has proved Williams’s undoing, revels in like and dislikes, much of it expressed loudly and meanly. Those not part of a larger drama seek voyeuristic involvement through imagined participation — may woe betide them that dupe and are later discovered. Unearthing jeep deceits are the 21st-century’s way of participating in Coliseum or guillotine executions, once a prized form of public entertainment.
The lesson all around might concern checking myths at the door, in deference to honesty, and reining in righteous objection, since both noble and less noble souls trade in large and small personal dishonesties. The human glass house has pebbles aplenty.
Unfortunately, myth-making of tapestry size means you’re instantly stuck with your yarn, whether a jeep, a scorched helicopter, or tales of womanizing. Encouraging strangers to participate in your “being there” means admirers and detractors will demand the tall tale remains tall, lest they feel cheated (or vindicated), which is when rage rises and heads roll.