The Right Wing Media Tries A “Gotcha!” On Brian Williams, And Looks Ignorant, Biased And Unfair

Atom bomb cloud

Bias makes us stupid, as I write here often.

One after another,  conservative media reporters  pounced on MSNBC’s Brian Williams, the exiled ex-NBC anchorman, for saying this on the air, in a discussion about the anti-nukes movement, re-energized by President Obama’s remarks at Hiroshima:

“It is and that is still the threat that people worry about that this material will fall into the wrong hands. If people have found the U.S. to be preachy in the years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki about the use of weapons, it’s because we’re the only nation to have used them in anger. Sometimes, I am amazed that the world has been without these weapons all the years since, but it is a point of, a great pride by the people who have seen to it.”

My God! Brian Williams, that lying liberal, actually smeared the United States and President Truman by suggesting that we dropped the atom bombs out of spite! Revenge! Hate! And he did it on Memorial Day weekend; its’ an insult to everyone who fought and died in that war!

Curis Houck, Newsbusters: “Williams  took a swipe at the entire reason that Truman had the bombs dropped (which was to end the war)”…

David Rutz, Washington Freebeacon: “MSNBC’s Brian Williams said the U.S. used nuclear weapons against Japan “in anger” Friday, an expression sure to upset those who recognize the decision potentially saved hundreds of thousands of lives by bringing about a swift end to World War II.”

Matt Vespa, Town Hall: “[T]he notion that anger was seemingly the primary motivating factor in dropping atomic bombs is nonsense. We did it to end the war….”

Sarah Hoyt, Instapundit: “WHAT THE? HOW ABOUT WE USED THEM IN STRATEGY?  Do these people have to have their brains ablated before getting newsmedia jobs?…And if we had used them in anger, would they have stopped the war less?  Stopped the massacre of our troops less? Stopped the likely suicide (in case of American invasion) of Japanese citizens less?  Dear Brian Williams, get a clue.”

There is nothing quite like living up to the worst stereotypes of conservatives pushed by the liberal media.

Now, I know Brian Williams a much detested biased journalist of the left, and I agree that he should have been bounced from broadcast news completely, and not sent to MSNBC where bias and distorting facts is an art form. In this case, however , he is absolutely, completely, 100% innocent, and it is his critics who have shown themselves to be crippled by confirmation bias, while revealing themselves to be…there’s no nice way to put it…illiterate.

For “in anger” is a very old, very well-worn and very clear idiom, that no well-read, fair, educated speaker of English could possibly take literally.

Here is a typical source, Wiktionary:

English “fire in anger”

military: To fire a weapon with the intent of causing damage or harm to an opponent (as opposed to a warning shot or a practice shot).

EX: “The Napier of Magdala Battery never fired a shot in anger: it never engaged in combat.”

Usage notes: Despite the use of the word anger, the phrase is not intended to describe the emotional state of the firer.

Here is the BBC on the topic:

In a military context, ‘to fire in anger’ means to shoot for a purpose in war. For example, a submarine that ‘fires in anger’ shoots missiles at an enemy ship. Shots fired in anger are never just for practice; they’re fired to deliberately cause damage or harm. ..‘Fire in anger’ has two meanings, depending on whether the context is military or non-military.  The military meaning is ‘in a real situation, not for practice’ and has no connection with the emotion of the person or thing doing the shooting. Examples of the phrase, as used in a military context: 

  • “The sinking of the Argentine cruiser, General Belgrano, during the Falklands war by HMS Conqueror, the first British nuclear submarine ever to fire in anger, is fully recounted.”
  • “…the first military guns in World War I to fire its guns in anger on British soil…”
  • “…becoming the first VII Corps unit to fire in anger since World War II.”

So Brian Williams was just using an idiom, in which “in anger” means “in real combat.” That is neither inaccurate, nor disrespectful, not unfair, nor wrong. It does require listeners with above 7th grade level language comprehension, though.

Of course, if you have an inadequate education, don’t know English literature or usage very well, or are just determined to take a cheap shot at a journalist and know your equally biased and equally illiterate readers will explode with hatred at him for suggesting Harry Truman broiled civilians, women and children because he was mad, you completely misinterpret what he said, and his intentions in saying it. (And yes, I recognize that many of William’s left-leaning, U.S.-hating, pacifist viewers also misunderstood his meaning, and thought, “Yeah! Right on!”)

Brain Williams is owed several apologies.

I am not holding my breath.

33 thoughts on “The Right Wing Media Tries A “Gotcha!” On Brian Williams, And Looks Ignorant, Biased And Unfair

  1. Minor idiocy. May all journalistic idiocies be as small.

    Except they’re not, are they? And.. there’s the “broken windows” effect of letting them get away with minor stuff leading them to try major stuff next time. So well called. No need to be niggardly in your criticism.

  2. I am not sure that those people writing the definitions or books/articles have ever been in combat. While shooting at a target, the best accuracy was when I put all emotions aside and took single shots between heartbeats to make head shots.

  3. I only recognize one of those names and it isn’t for any kind of journalism. It’s for having stories in a couple of anthologies I’ve bought (from a publisher with a rather hard-right flavor) and for being an alt-right reactionary in the most literal sense. Meaning she reacts to almost everything by screaming about Marxists and how awful it was that the fascist government in Portugal fell during her childhood.

  4. I’d say I’m decently well-educated (though not in liberal arts) and a competent user of English, and my first reaction was similar to those of the journalists. I was unaware that it was a military idiom. However, they’re journalists, and have an obligation to look up other people’s words before they criticize them.

    They should also stop and consider what the speaker would have been thinking if they (the journalists) were correct: Seeing as how the United States is the only country to date to have used atomic bombs against another country (which is apparently what was intended), what point would there be in contrasting the emotional state of the people making that decision with the nonexistent emotional state of the people making the nonexistent decision in another country?

    It’s redundant, indicating there’s another meaning in play here. That might not play out in their heads, but it should have raised a concern in their intuitions that they should second-guess themselves. That’s what the bias inhibited.

    I hope they would have realized something was up if the idiom had been more noticeable, like “we’re the only nation to have used them with our boots on” or something.

  5. I think Williams’ use of “fire in anger” was apt both in terms of the phrase’s denotation and connotation. thankfully, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are the only two instances nuclear weapons have been deployed in combat. Was the bombing understandable for any number of reasons? Yes. Was it the culmination of a tremendously heroic effort scientifically and organizationally? Yes. Was it vital to stay ahead of the Germans and the Russians? Yes. Was it a horrific human tragedy? Yes. People who can’t see the various sides of this issue are idiots.

      • I had the great, great honor and pleasure of getting to know a then retired University of Arizona professor of Physics. He began his career in the early ’50s, fresh out of graduate school, using early computers at Lawrence-Livermore to do thermal calculations on the hydrogen bomb. He was a lefty in most every regard (illegal immigration, gun control, etc.), as are most Tucsonans and certainly U of A professors and staff, so I was very interested to ask him whether he had any qualms about the use of science and scientists in nuclear weapons development. He didn’t hesitate for an instant: “It was either us or the Russians.” Last I knew, he was still pursuing his hobby of using sonic devices and computers to help him select the best spruce for making the tops of the violins he builds in his little workshop next to his garage.

        • My father is as left wing as they come . A New Deal FDR democrat who thought Bill Clinton was a conservative fascist.

          He would have been in the Marine invasion force that invaded main land Japan so I asked him what he thought about using the two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His response was he only wished we had dropped more.

  6. Personally, I kinda hope Harry WAS angry. Making the decision to kill this many non-combatant civilians cold-heartedly and without remorse, no matter what the justification, seems a little…scary.

    • Decisions like that can’t be made responsibly under the distortion of emotion. And using non-coms as a reason not to take decisive action in warfare 1) gets more soldiers killed and 2) loses wars. There’s nothing cold-hearted about dropping bombs. The responsibility for citizen deaths in wars lies squarely with the government that made the war necessary. Japan could have saved every one of those casualties by surrendering before the bombs were dropped.

  7. “The responsibility for citizen deaths in wars lies squarely with the government that made the war necessary.”

    Isn’t that subjective? Doesn’t every warring country have their reasons that their parts were “necessary” and lay blame at the feet of others? Isn’t that what nationalism and patriotism is all about, believing your side is always in the right? Isn’t that the principle behind manifest destiny? God is on your side?

    I’m not saying we were wrong (or right) for dropping the bombs when we did, but I am saying that if you talk impartially to each side in any conflict each will usually have justification for their individual aggression.

    There has always been an effort to limit bombing and other military actions to military targets, as much as is possible – to limit civilian deaths and destruction of civilian homes and property. Even the attack on Pearl Harbor was limited to ships and the base itself was largely spared and the rest of the island was untouched. Is that why we perceive the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Oklahoma City, Brussels and Paris so particularly nefarious, because they targeted innocent civilians?

    Our actions may have been warranted, but I am not 100% convinced that we chose the best targets.

    • “There has always been an effort to limit bombing and other military actions to military targets, as much as is possible – to limit civilian deaths and destruction of civilian homes and property.”

      I call your attention to Curtis Lemay who asked for and got low-level incendiary bombing of Japanese cities, targeting the paper and bamboo homes of the residents. The same tactic was employed in Europe, with the fire-bombing of Dresden.

        • Sometimes, that’s what it takes. Japan had lost the war, and it was obvious that she had. Yet, the government refused to surrender. Russia was threatening from the north and they were virtually surrounded. Both the Navy and the Air Corps were bombing them massively, their Navy was destroyed…well, I could go on forever. Without the A-bombs, we would have had to invade, with all the attendant casualties on both sides.

    • I don’t think that in WWII concern for targeting enemy civilians was a significant factor in many of the strategic decisions — indeed, I believe that a lot of Air Force commanders thought that bombing German civilians would help shorten the war.

      In the run up to D-Day, the Allies had a strategic bombing campaign called, I think, the Transport Option, during which they systematically bombed the French rail network. It was accepted in planning this campaign that it would necessarily result in the deaths of thousands of French civilians (i.e. Allied civilians). This was considered unfortunate, but an unavoidable side effect of the effort to protect the D-Day invasion.

  8. You know, when I first read his comments I had (and still have) some trouble trying to follow just what he meant. However, the ‘in anger’ part was not a factor. I understood the idiom, although his phrasing seems a bit awkward.

    It’s a bit hard for me to grasp that large numbers of people have never heard this phrase used: A common example would be something like “That soldier/policeman/civilian had never before heard shots fired in anger” or something along those lines.

  9. I follow a small, local conservative blog that constantly posts misrepresentations like this one. Even worse was this claim, which I think originated at Breitbart:

    “According to Obama, the decision to drop the bomb followed the old pattern of war made from, “…humanity’s worst instincts, including,”nationalist fervor or religious zeal,” and was “amplified by new capabilities without new constraints.”

    You wrote an article about this speech, so you know that’s not what Obama said; those quotes relate to his words about the history of war, but Breitbart inserted them into a sentence about the atom bomb. When I showed this blogger Obama’s exact words, she continued to insist that the above quote was simply a different “interpretation” of what Obama said, instead of the lie it clearly is. Not only that, she insisted that she came to that interpretation independently, by reading the transcript, and not from reading the exact same claim from Breitbart. I’m sure pointing out that she also misrepresented the term “fired in anger” won’t make any difference to her either; the capacity for self-deception in the human animal is amazing.

    • Yes, close call on whether I posted on this one too. Sarah Palin and others have claimed Obama “apologized” for the bomb, which as I explained, he carefully did NOT do.

  10. If, of course, Brian Williams knew that was the meaning of “in anger” and really didn’t mean “emotional.” Then, yes, they were incorrect. But, Brian Williams also needs to know his audience. Most of his audience wouldn’t know that “in anger” didn’t mean being emotional. That doesn’t mean we’re all uneducated, just that it’s jargon for a profession that we’re not involved in. Every profession has it’s own language. This is part of the military’s.

    • I was in the Vietnam War for six years and never heard or read “in anger” over there so I am sure it is NOT military jargon. It was very likely created by a novelist, reporter, or someone else who has no direct experience with the military.

      • I heard it when I was but it was always in context of training where it was explained that things would be different when we heard shots fired at us in anger.

        I would bet you never heard it because that’s what was happening to you and you didn’t need it explained to you.

  11. I confess I did not know the “in anger” idiom in this context, and thank Jack for educating me where every other commentator would have just reinforces my ESL misunderstanding.

  12. Well I, for one, was previously unaware of this idiom, and I thank you for teaching it to me.


  13. It is also a phrase used in sport. I heard the phrase used yesterday when an Australian commentator said that some of the players had not played a shot in anger for a few days because of the rain.

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