Montana Voices: Journalists stymied in modern age of lies
By David Crisp/Last Best News
Just about the first friend I ever had shared a school bus with me to first grade. The friendship didn’t last. I figured out pretty soon that nearly everything he told me was an out-and-out lie.
By the time he made his most outlandish claim of all—that he couldn’t do his homework because a steamroller had run over his textbook—I was so inured to his tall tales that I remained skeptical even after he showed me the book, which looked a lot like a steamroller had run over it.
Lying always has been hard for me to take. My parents told me it was wrong, and I believed them. They never lied, so I got no useful training in this basic human skill.
Even in more dissolute days, I never got good at either detecting or telling lies. That’s a serious defect in journalists, who are in the business, as Russell Baker once noted, of having important people lie to them.
Over the years I have been taken in by liars large and small. The lies of a woman I once interviewed eventually landed her in prison, although I had nothing to do with that. Once at the Outpost, an offended advertiser pulled all his ads, even though we had done nothing wrong. A colleague advised that we apologize, but I couldn’t do it, not because I was too proud but because I was too inept. I knew, or at least believed, that he would know the apology was insincere, and that would just make things worse.
As a result, I spend little time trying to outwit liars. I try not to write about them; instead, I write them off.
That makes it disturbing to learn that lying has now become the official policy of the U.S. government. You no doubt know the details.
Presidents always have lied. Johnson lied to get us to commit a half-million troops in Vietnam, and continued lies kept us there for another 10 years. George H.W. Bush lied when said that the appointment of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court had nothing to do with the fact that Thomas is black.
Clinton lied about sexual relations. Obama lied when he said you can keep your doctor. Even George Washington apparently lied.
But this is different. Not only does this president lie, unashamedly and perhaps delusionally, he instructs his spokespeople to lie. And evidence is rapidly surfacing that federal agencies are being forbidden to distribute information that contradicts official White House lies.
Some pundits this week were saying that it’s time to forget the new administration’s trivial lies and focus instead on what the new president is actually doing. But that’s just wrong.
Canceling the Trans-Pacific Partnership? All the major candidates said they would do that.
Reopening the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines? Predictable and, in any case, more important as symbols than as real issues.
Bad cabinet appointments? We have survived dozens, if not hundreds, of bad cabinet members.
Freezing federal hiring? That’s an inefficient way to run a personnel department and may end up costing us money. Reagan, the conservative icon, did the same thing and left office after serving two terms with more federal workers on the payroll than we have now.
Ignoring climate change? OK, that will kill us all, but not for a while yet.
But lying as a matter of public policy changes the entire premise of representative democracy. Facts, or at least agreement that facts matter, is essential to self-rule.
Journalists, many of whom are not much more at ease with lying than me, are struggling to deal with this new reality. The New York Times has boldly used the “lie” word in headlines. The more circumspect Wall Street Journal has resisted the word, arguing that the “L” word implies a deliberate intent to deceive. That requires looking into a speaker’s heart, a place that the Freedom of Information Act cannot penetrate, no matter what Trump’s spokespeople say.
The Journal has a point. When Trump says the crowd at his inauguration looked like a million people or more, he’s probably not lying, just confused. When he says he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11, he probably thinks he really did, just as I was for years convinced that I had a Vince DiMaggio baseball card.
The difference is that when my own research showed I could not have had the card because it had never even existed, I quit claiming I had it. Trump’s fantasies live on.
Jay Rosen of Pressthink has said journalists should just stop interviewing professional prevaricators like Kellyanne Conway. Others say that when Trump or his surrogates refuse to answer a reporter’s question, other reporters should pick up the slack and keep asking the same question. A few suggest the self-defeating policy of skipping press briefings altogether.
Still others say that reporters should simply ignore Trump’s Tweets and report only on what he actually does. And others say news organizations need to double down on investigative reporting, an ambitious goal considering the sorry straits the industry is in.
Dan Rather says that every Republican official should be repeatedly confronted with this question: “what will you do to combat the lying from the White House?” Carl Bernstein says that Fox News, the favorite network of Trump voters, could do America a service by taking the lead in exposing official lies, thus earning its “fair and balanced” slogan.
The sad bottom line is that American journalism is simply unequipped to deal with this unprecedented phenomenon. So far, the most effective technique appears to be ridicule, which is at best a bent arrow in the average reporter’s quiver.
Bent, and slender. The most powerful urge may be simply to walk away, as I did from my first-grade friend. But we have no place to go. Somehow, somewhere, journalists will have to stand and fight.
David Crisp is a longtime Montana journalist and writing professor. He writes for Last Best News in Billings.