Jewish World Review June 29, 2004 / 10 Tamuz, 5762
Why truth can't win
There was once a time when, perhaps naively, I actually thought that the "truth" would always win in the end. Then, after having lived a couple of decades and witnessed the enormous power behind the forces of deceit in this world, I came to believe that the "truth" was actually a slight underdog in the never ending battle for hearts and minds. Now, I have become resigned to the reality that in the vast majority of cases the "truth" actually has little or no chance of emerging on top or even surviving intact.
Four recent news stories have provided ample evidence for the validity of this sad assessment.
First came the 10th anniversary of O.J. Simpson killing two people and the inevitable interviews that the murderer gave to various friendly media outlets. Just by virtue of the fact that there are news organizations in this country more than willing to be "friendly" to a man who brutally killed his wife and friend and then purposely divided the country to get away with it, should be proof enough that the "truth" is big trouble.
Simpson was not only given network air time by NBC and Fox News Channel, but he was also provided assurances by both interviewers/suitors (Katie Couric and Greta Van Susteren) that their questions would not deal with the facts of the case. I am morally certain that only just a few years ago doing an interview with O. J. Simpson and agreeing not asking him questions about the facts of the murder case against him would have been unthinkable on its face and would have been career suicide for any "journalist" who took part in such a farce.
Why am I so sure? Because back in 1995 NBC and Katie Couric canceled a post-acquittal interview with Simpson because O.J. wanted restrictions on the questions!! So what changed since then? Among other things, an increased value in our media/culture on celebrity and a decreased importance placed on our old friend the "truth."
NBC commissioned a poll for their embarrassing interview with Simpson in which they revealed that 22% of Americans still believe him to be innocent of the murder charges. In other words, almost a quarter of the people in this country believe something to be true that is completely false and, because of the massive amount of evidence against him and all the unprecedented attention the case received, for which there is absolutely (other than severe birth defects) no excuse for being wrong about.
While there are many reasons why this is the case, one of the most important is that the dynamic of how the news media reports reality has made it almost impossible for there to be unanimity among Americans on even the most basic of facts. In their attempt to APPEAR as if they are being fair to both sides of any given argument, virtually equal weight is given to each, almost no matter how ridiculous one of them is.
One of the many problems that this matrix poses for the "truth" is that, by definition, the truth is static, but a lie only has the boundaries that the storyteller is willing to place upon it.
Think of it this way…2+2 will ALWAYS equal four. So, if you are trying to convince people that 2+2=4, you have only one argument you can make and it cannot be exaggerated. Conversely, if you want your audience to NOT believe that 2+2=4, you can get creative. You can claim that 2+2 actually equals 100. The other side will say, no, it is equal to four. Then the news media, in an effort to appear "fair," will tell both "sides" of the story and leave the impression that, since no one is to be completely believed any more, that the "truth" must be somewhere in between. So, in this case, the public gets the idea that 2+2 probably equals something close to 52. In that scenario who has won? Obviously it is not the "truth."
While the O.J. case was extreme example because his lawyers were trying to convince people that 2+2=1,000 and because the news media had a ratings/financial interest in allowing people to have at least some doubt as to his guilt, the same template has become the enemy of truth in the political arena as well.
No one has benefited more from this phenomenon than Bill Clinton.
This was once again exposed as he began his "reinvention" tour to promote his new book. Here we have the former President hawking a 957 page autobiography titled "My Life," forcing him to provide unprecedented access to an eager news media. One would think that this would mean that virtually ANY question would not only be fair game, but it would be demanded, especially if Clinton had never been asked it before. Sadly, this could not have been further from the case.
As difficult as it is to fathom, Dan Rather not only failed to ever even MENTION the words "perjury" or "obstruction of justice" ("Impeachment" got used just once), but he left the strong impression that Clinton had been impeached for having sex with an intern and that there was no question that it was the worst thing and perhaps the only bad thing he did in his entire Presidency. Of course, neither proposition is even close to being true and yet huge portions of the American public believe that they are.
While reasonable people can certainly differ over whether Clinton should have resigned, been impeached, or removed from office (or not), why can't we even establish the most simple of realities that he WAS, in fact, impeached and that it was NOT because he had sexual relations with an intern? Well, when a main network news anchor appears to not have a grasp of this simple truth, how can the rest of America possibly be any better?
Even when Rather's interview with Clinton did dare to tread on the relevant issues regarding impeachment (like lying under oath), the former President was allowed to elude the truth more easily than O.J. used to evade would-be tacklers. For instance, Clinton was permitted by his feeble questioner to once again posit the absurd theory that he didn't really lie under oath in his Paula Jones deposition because the definition of "sexual relations" he was given was so convoluted. This would be interesting if it were remotely true, or if Clinton hadn't also testified that he was never "alone" with Monica, or that he had actually been impeached for having perjured himself in that deposition (the rabid, right-wing House of Representatives voted NOT to impeach him on that charge).
About the same time that Clinton was once again getting away with further imbedding his lies into the American consciousness, the news media was busy creating a brand new one with regard the conclusions of the 9/11 commission.
A recently released "staff report" (not a commission "conclusion") stated that "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States." This would appear to be a very straightforward and not terribly controversial finding. However, this is not at all the way it was reported or used by others for political gain.
Virtually every major television network newscast and newspaper made exactly the same "mistake" in the way that simple conclusion was conveyed to the American people. They all claimed that the commission had found no evidence of ANY significant ties between Iraq and al Qaeda, and then went on to opine that this was proof the Bush administration had been caught in another lie about the reasons for the invasion.
This reporting went WAY beyond showing bias or even being misleading. This was a flat out lie. The commission staff finding dealt only with evidence that Iraq helped in the attacks of 9/11, which should not have presented much of a mystery because, after all, it is the "9/11 Commission." The Warren Commission investigating the assassination of JFK, found that there was no mob connection to the killing, they did NOT conclude that there were no organized crime ties to JFK, Jack Ruby or Lee Harvey Oswald. Similarly, saying that there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein helped in the 9/11 attacks (a finding which the Bush administration has agreed with since just days after 9/11), does not in any way indicate that there was no significant relationship between the two.
Why was this such a difficult distinction for the press to make? I honestly don't know. Not believing in conspiracies, it is very difficult for me to understand how and why so many news outlets could get it so wrong in almost exactly the same way. All I know is that it did happen and that both John Kerry and Al Gore repeated the erroneous media conclusions to crowds of happily ignorant voters who lapped it up probably honestly believing that they were hearing the "truth." Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of both the President and Vice President, and some minor efforts at "clarification" on the part of the news media, they were certainly not alone in being duped.
Finally, there is Michael Moore's new movie "Fahrenheit 9/11." As many have already said, the movie is not a documentary. It is nothing more than a propaganda piece intended to promote the defeat of George Bush, and Moore has essentially admitted as much. No one is really even CLAIMING that everything in the movie is true and yet the news media continues to report on it using the very same matrix of "Is it true or not?" and allowing people to believe that it is reasonable to conclude that it is a factual account of the events surrounding 9/11.
Much like O.J.'s lawyers, Michael Moore and his celebrity supporters are asserting that 2+2=1,000 and the news media thinks that suggesting that maybe the movie isn't completely "true" gets them off the hook from having actually having to take a stand on what the "truth" actually is. If we lived in a culture where the average citizen was educated and intelligent enough to be able to discern for themselves what is bullcrap and what is real, this would only be mildly exasperating. However, because we don't live in that world, and because the stakes in the war on terror are so high, this is extremely dangerous.
Americans have now, understandably, been conditioned not to believe anyone about anything. They think that the "truth" is always somewhere in the middle (one of the many reasons that our national elections have been so close lately) between what the two "sides" are claiming it is. As a radio talk show host, I know first hand that the left have marginalized my medium to such great effect that anything I say is automatically seen through that prism of suspicion. I am hardly suggesting that anything I or any other talk host says should be taken as "gospel," but I feel strongly that it should not be presumed that what we, or anyone else that is deemed to be "credible," say has no chance of being the "truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
This cynicism is usually well founded, but when taken to its extreme it also has very negative repercussions because it insures that the truth cannot win. In the case of Moore's movie, millions of Americans think they are "learning" about how our war on terror began and how it is being fought. While the vast majority will understand that his story is not 100% accurate (that reality is probably actually INCREASING ticket sales), the fact that most have been allowed to think it rational to conclude that ANY of it is accurate is a damning indictment of our resolve in the war on terror, the pathetic nature of our public discourse, and the remarkable weakness of what was once to thought to be a force more powerful than almost anything else: the truth.
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JWR contributor John Ziegleris a talk show host on KFI 640 AM in Los Angeles. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2004, John Ziegler