Friday, February 6, 2015

Truth and Credibility

Want to know why it's so hard to trust the media? Read the story of Brian Williams, NBC News evening anchor, and considered by many to be the most upright guy on television news.

The quick version is that Williams confessed to fabricating a tale about how a helicopter in which he was riding in Iraq took fire from enemy ground forces during the Iraq war. He had recounted this concoction a number of times in the twelve years since he went to Iraq to report on the war for NBC. It turns out, though, that it wasn't true, and it's almost impossible to believe, given the manner in which he has repeated it over the years, that he wasn't deliberately prevaricating.

Williams joins a long list of journalists and politicians who have told stories about war-time experiences (Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) or about political foes (former CBS newsman Dan Rather) that were subsequently shown to be blatantly false. The question is, why do they do it?

A partial answer, perhaps, is that lying is no longer considered morally wrong. Our post-modern culture has abandoned the notion of objective truth, and embraced the concept that whatever narrative you can tell about yourself that you can get others to believe becomes your truth. It's true for you because you want it to be true, even if there's not a shred of objective fact in the story.

There is, too, the post-modern concept of moral right and wrong according to which whatever works to help you achieve your goals is right. If lying works then lying is justified.

Thus, Dan Rather insisted that George Bush had been AWOL during the Vietnam war and when the evidence he was found to be relying upon was shown to be a forgery he bizarrely declared that the story was "fake but accurate." He meant by this that even though the evidence was phony it still pointed to the larger truth that Bush was a shirker, an allegation for which there was no evidence but which Rather desperately wanted the public to accept.

The same notion of truth as a purely subjective preference was in play in the recent University of Virginia rape case. The story, run by Rolling Stone, was found to be completely unsubstantiated, but feminists still said that that didn't matter because it reinforced a narrative about campus rape that those feminists wanted the general public to accept. So, if the charges of rape were "fake," so what? They were still "accurate" even if the alleged perpetrator had his life ruined by them.

Hillary Clinton has claimed several times that during the Bosnian war a plane she was on had to take evasive action to avoid sniper fire as the pilot tried to land at a Bosnian airport, and that the ceremony at the airport had to be cancelled as they ran to their cars with their heads down. Her fable unraveled when video of her being greeted on the tarmac by children bearing poems emerged.

There are perhaps a near infinite number of other examples we could cite, including the numerous claims by Barack Obama that under the Affordable Care Act we'd be able to keep our doctors, keep our insurance, and that our insurance would get cheaper. None of this is true, and one has to be extraordinarily gullible to think that he didn't know the claims weren't true when he uttered them. Just as one has to extraordinarily gullible to believe that the White House didn't know that the narrative they foisted on the nation about the cause of the Benghazi embassy attacks (an obscure anti-Islam video) was false.

Sadly, perhaps tragically, we no longer place a premium on truth, and people don't seem to mind being lied to by their leaders and peers. It's no longer considered a big deal. Indeed, we seem to expect it. Senator Blumenthal told a whopper of a tale about his service in Vietnam until it was discovered that he never set foot in the country. The people of Connecticut shrugged and elected him to the U.S. Senate in 2010.

If the only thing wrong with lying is getting caught we can assume that we're going to be lied to an awful lot by the people who are convinced that their ends justify whatever means they must employ to achieve them. We can also assume that those who wish to somehow burnish their reputations by claiming to have survived experiences they never had will also proliferate. Brian Williams isn't the first, and he surely won't be the last.