Brian Williams's reputation is free fallin'.

Photographer: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for New York Comedy Festival

Brian Williams Fell, Sam Smith Soared

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the author of “The World According to Star Wars” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”
Read More.
a | A

Brian Williams and Sam Smith may have little in common, apart from being award-winning celebrities (Williams has 12 Emmys and Smith, four Grammys), but at the moment both are being held accountable for wrongdoing. Together, the two cases spotlight a risk that anyone in public life must run. Let’s call it the Denominator Problem.

Over the course of a career, a politician, a news anchor, a musician, a movie star or a professional athlete will have said and done countless things. In this respect, they are no different from anyone else -- except that their statements and actions are subject to continual and sometimes obsessive public scrutiny. Even if their lives are exemplary, they are highly likely to have said or done one or two things -- or maybe 10 or 20 -- that are embarrassing, foolish, hurtful or even ugly.

That’s what gives rise to the Denominator Problem. Think of a person's life as a stream of actions that can be expressed as a fraction: The total is the denominator, and the bad acts are the numerator. For any public figure, there are bound to be many known actions in the denominator, and at least a few in the numerator. Yet if we judge the person by the numerator alone, we end up with a distorted and unfair impression. Even for the newly famous, that imposes a serious risk.

Sam Smith won four Grammys for “Stay With Me,” but the song’s chorus sounds nearly identical to Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down” -- so much so that, just last month, Smith agreed to give Petty both a songwriting credit and significant royalties.

Smith has faced little criticism for this duplication. There has been no serious scandal, perhaps because musicians are known to borrow from one another, and perhaps because of Petty’s gracious words, which explicitly signal the Denominator Problem: “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.”

Williams has been subject to a much more severe penalty: six months' suspension from his job as NBC Nightly News anchor, without pay. His offense was to misstate, repeatedly, his experience on a military helicopter in Iraq, in a self-aggrandizing way. (Unfortunately, this particular misstatement appears not to be his only one.) That’s worse than a mistake. Unlike a musician, and more like a politician, a news anchor needs and relies on public trust. And the public naturally gets angry if he violates it.

Fair enough. The problem is that when people focus on a particular misdeed, it can distort their overall judgment. One transgression -- or a few -- ends up overwhelming the whole picture. And in Williams' case, that’s wrong. He's had an exceptionally distinguished career. He is rightly being held accountable, but he hasn’t exactly committed a felony.

Those in public life often run into the Denominator Problem, and it causes serious unfairness. The same problem arises in private life as well -- in the workplace, in friendships, in marriages.

True, some forms of misconduct are intolerable. But much of the time, Tom Petty’s near-haiku is the proper response: “Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by.”

In more egregious cases, Saint John gets it right: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Cass R Sunstein at csunstein1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net