Truth Slips Away in Public Debate
There's excitement in the science world. They've rediscovered a lizard with a long nose, informally dubbed Pinocchio, which scientists thought was extinct. Columnists, comedians and satirists are excited, too. Pinocchio the loquacious puppet, the patron saint of liars everywhere, gets new life on the symbol circuit.
The lizard, officially Anolis proboscis for his long, horn-like protrusion at the end of the nose, was found in an Ecuadorian forest after dropping from sight for over 40 years. "Finding the Anolis proboscis was like discovering a secret," says Alejandro Arteaga, a photographer who was one of the lizard's spotters. "We conceived it for years to be a mythological creature."
The political liar has never been regarded as a mythological creature, but lying has recently grown to mythic proportions. The most prominent offender, of course, is a certain president who puts deception to work to achieve his goals, most prominently about his health care scheme.
Jon Stewart, the liberal comedian who usually defends whatever President Obama says and does, rolls out a series of video clips showing the president in numberless versions, one after the other, of repeating his statement that if you like your health insurance, you can keep it. "So, yes," the comic concedes, "the president was somewhat dishonest about the promise of his health care program." Only somewhat?
Ordinarily, quoting a comedian to make a political point is a fool's errand, but useful this time because television comedy shows are where the young and foolish get their "news." Lying can be stretched out on a yardstick, quantified and compared for laughs. According to some surveys, almost a third of Americans under the age of 40, many of whom must sign up for Obamacare to subsidize the older generations, say they get their news from pop TV like the Daily Show, the Colbert Report and Internet sites of suspect reputation.
Frank Gaffney, chairman of the Center for Security Policy, extends his analysis of the president's meretricious statements about what's actually in the Iranian agreement to halt the race to the Islamic bomb. "How do we tell the president is lying?" he asks. "His lips are moving."
A lie, goes the folk wisdom, can travel around the world before the truth gets its boots on.
Lies can be merely wishes, saying what you hope is true, and if President Obama gets the benefit of the doubt he doesn't deserve, his early pledges about keeping the insurance we like may have been wishful thinking, but once the evidence was in and he continued to say it, the "misspeaking" became the willful lie.
The fact checkers at The Washington Post, which grants the president many mulligans, use symbols of Pinocchio to denote lying. This time they gave him the maximum, four Pinocchios.
It's hardly stop-press news that politicians lie, but when lies go viral on the Internet, it's difficult for the truth to survive. Just as the comedy "news" shows are not after truth, the Internet blurs fact and fiction because the gatekeepers, the crusty old city editors who wouldn't let a reporter or columnist get by with fudging facts, are mostly all dead. The new breed insists that "going viral" trumps verification, volume trumps veracity. Incentives work against truth telling in the high tech culture.
"If you throw something up without fact-checking it, and you're the first one to put it up, and you get millions and millions of views, and later it's proved false, you still get those views," Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post, told The New York Times, conceding that it had posted phony stories. "That's a problem."
The specific stories Huffington posted were fairly harmless. Once, a child's letter to Santa on Twitter with a detailed link to Amazon.com, was actually written by a grown-up comedian. A fight on an airliner that was reported as fact was actually pure fiction. But when truth is continually sacrificed — whether carelessly or cravenly — on sites that purport to offer serious news, trustworthiness is sacrificed, and the reader is confused as well as deceived. This is true when presidents do it, too.
The searchers who found the hard-to-spot Pinocchio lizard say the critters, though camouflaged, weren't hard to find "if you knew where to look." The lizard, in fact, was one up on truth in public life.
Write to Suzanne Fields at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.' To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.
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