(Reuters/Phil McCarten)

Steve Rannazzisi's 9/11 lie: Why public figures stretch the truth about public events

The same very human impulses that led to Brian Williams' disgrace are at play here

Scott Timberg
September 16, 2015 8:37PM (UTC)

Many of want to live in history – to see our lives aligned with the big public events of the age. The tragedies, wars, and national triumphs that we hear about shape us, too, so we often see ourselves as tangled up in them. People who lived through the John F. Kennedy assassination, for instance, famously remember where they were when they heard about it.

But sometimes people take their connection to larger events a bit further into the territory of baldface lying. This seems to be the case with "The League" star Steve Rannazzisi, who has claimed for more than a decade to have been working in the World Trade Center when the planes hit on 9/11. A New York Times story today describes the mess he’s now in:


When the comedian Steve Rannazzisi has explained his success, which includes seven seasons starring on a popular TV show, “The League,” and a one-hour special this Saturday on Comedy Central, he has frequently attributed it to decisions he made after narrowly escaping the World Trade Center attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

In elaborate detail, Mr. Rannazzisi, 37, has described working at Merrill Lynch’s offices on the 54th floor of the south tower when the first plane struck the north tower.

“I was there and then the first tower got hit and we were like jostled all over the place,” he told an interviewer in 2009.

When the second plane hit the tower where he’d worked a few minutes after he ran out, he saw it as a sign that he should pursue his dream of acting, so he and his girlfriend (now wife) left New York for Los Angeles, where he became a successful actor. It’s a tale -- a kind of creation story for his career -- he’s told in various forms, many times throughout the years.

But it turns out that Rannazzisi was in Midtown that day, and he never worked at Merrill Lynch.

The comedian joins a list of people who have faked proximity not just to the 9/11 attacks but to other traumatic events. News anchor Brian Williams famously lied about an emergency landing in a helicopter during the Iraq War, flying with a Navy SEAL team, his whereabouts during the fall of the Berlin wall, and lots of other stuff. The historian and bestselling author Joseph Ellis lied about leading troops in Vietnam, during a period he spent mostly teaching at West Point.


The question is, Why? Are these people pathological liars? Don’t they know that as public figures discussing public events, they’ll be found out at some point? How different are they from regular folk who tell their spouse that they look better in a dress or jacket than they really do?

One frightening possibility is that these publicly shamed figures are actually a lot like us, just amplified. “There is a tendency for us to look at that and assume that there is something wrong with these people,” says Art Markman, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “But, they are engaging in the same embellishments that many other people use to make their life stories a little more interesting. I think people integrate the lies into their life story pretty quickly and stop thinking about the fact that they are telling a lie that someone could verify.”

Markman compares it to the way people routinely exaggerate their connections to famous people they went to school with, or claim to have gone to Woodstock and other landmark events they never saw. Most people will feel a pang of guilt the first time, he says, but the powers of self-deception are formidable, and not just in professional liars. “Over time, I think they forget that what they are doing is telling a fabricated story,” he says. “Not that they now believe they really did do thing they are lying about, just that they are no longer actively thinking about the difference between their story and the reality.”


Since being found out this week, Rannazzisi has begun to apologize; on Twitter today he posted a long note that concludes: “It was profoundly disrespectful to those who perished and those who lost loved ones. The stupidity and guilt I have felt for many years has not abated. It was an early taste of having a public persona, and I made a terrible mistake.”

Should we excuse his lies? No – he’s exploited a tragedy in which thousands of people died to create a story that makes him sound deeper and more complex than he really is, and he deserves to pay a price for his self-absorption. That goes a dozen times more for Brian Williams, who has made a career out of this kind of thing. And Rannazzisi might pay more than embarrassment — the fate of his upcoming Comedy Central special, "Breaking Dad," is currently up in the air.


But the frightening truth may be that the difference between Rannazzisi and the rest of us is mostly one of degree.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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