NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, suspended for six months without pay, is being compared to Hillary Clinton and Jayson Blair in his deceit. (Clinton also misremembered a war zone scene; Blair routinely made up stories for the New York Times.) But those are both off the mark: Williams’ case most resembles that of Joseph J. Ellis, a historian of the American founding. Here’s context: In 2001, Joseph J. Ellis, author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the American founding called Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, was suspended from his endowed chair at Mount Holyoke for fabricating stories about serving under Gen. William C. Westmoreland in Vietnam during lectures in a course on Vietnam over several decades. (He also falsely claimed he was a high school sports star, but that was less egregious.)
Both Williams and Ellis made themselves the dramatis persona in a self-mythologizing that lasted years. They were both rewarded handsomely for their confabulations. They both lied specifically about being on the front-lines in war zones and both were charged with discrediting their professions — professions which rely on accuracy and credibility. Both Williams and Ellis had their work combed over with unhappy results. Both were suspended — in Ellis’s case for a year. Brian Williams’ case is, of course, more high profile. But it remains to be seen if the news anchor can pull off what Ellis did in his return. Ellis used his suspension year to write an eventual bestselling biography of notable truth-teller George Washington–His Excellency: George Washington. Will we have a bestseller by Brian Williams? It’s a common enough path toward public redemption.