“What is truth?” So asked Pontius Pilate of Jesus, during His trial, as recorded in John 18:38. Theologians debate whether Pilate was being rhetorical, philosophical, mocking or jesting. (Notably, Pilate does not wait for Jesus to answer.)
I frequently reflect on this enigmatic exchange as I think about the unparalleled importance of truth. Judges and juries are duty bound to seek it. Indeed, in American jurisprudence, witnesses are admonished to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” — on pain of offending God.
Though truth is sometimes very difficult to ascertain, it is imperative that we do our best to extract it even in the murkiest circumstances — whether in a court of law or in the court of public opinion. Life is meaningless without truth. Thus, it is to our great detriment that we now dwell in a “post-truth” world — a world in which basic facts, and even reality itself, are under assault. This assault affects, and infects, virtually every aspect of our lives.
Two of the most important arenas in which this post-truth ethic has been especially damning are our politics and our media. The implications of this state of affairs have increasingly important ramifications. For example, given the coronavirus crisis, truth — and the trust that it engenders — literally can mean the difference between life and death.
Unfortunately, a relatively small group of people has successfully convinced roughly a third of the American people that neither the government nor the “mainstream media” can be trusted under almost any circumstance. Worse still, these people often perpetuate this lie for the most selfish reason — greed. (Of course, the paradox that there are “true believers” in the promotion of falsehoods doesn’t make them any less damaging to our society.)
Obviously, there are legitimate reasons not to have complete faith in the government (e.g., Jim Crow, secret experiments on citizens, COINTELPRO, cover-ups, etc.). But it is beyond folly to lump all aspects of government into the same pile, and then to label that pile “corrupt.” The government consists of everyone from the local school board to the president of the United States. A relative few of these hundreds of thousands of people are worthy of contempt.
Similarly, millions of people consider the mainstream media — those who Rush Limbaugh refers to as “the drive-by media” — to be the scourge of society. There is a cabal — politicians, ultra-wealthy businessmen, think tanks, websites, entertainment outlets posing as news organizations, even “universities” — that is dedicated to destroying both “the administrative state” (to use Steve Bannon’s phrase) and long-established media organizations. This is not paranoia; many of them are quite open about their goals. Again, while media bias is real, there is no conspiracy among ABC, CBS, NBC, et al to destroy America. (Ironically, many of those who mistrust the government welcome President Trump’s repeated calls for state-run media.)
Fortunately, there are defectors — fueled by a crisis of conscience — who are coming forward to denounce the apparatus of which they were a part. For example, there is long-time conservative media figure Charlie Sykes. From 1993 to 2016 Sykes hosted a show on talk radio. Beginning just a few years after Limbaugh went national, Sykes’ show was part-and-parcel of the rise of the conservative media wave that has swept the nation. Sykes now says that the current version of right-wing media is “very different from what (he) signed up for” when he started his radio career. Today he argues that right-wing radio and television are “hermetically-sealed universes where conservatives go to have their views confirmed.” He is not speaking from an ivory tower. He admits (and genuinely bemoans) the role that he played in the devolution of right-wing media from being a voice that expresses “the other point of view,” to being “an echo chamber,” to being “alternative reality silos.”
Sykes has even written a book titled “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” which details the indispensable role that right-wing sensationalism and outright lies played in the election of Donald Trump. In fact, Sykes had what he calls his “uh oh” moment when he realized that right-wing media, in supporting candidate Trump’s incessant lying and sensationalism, had completely lost its legitimacy. Sadly, he believes that things are going to get even worse.
I know that many of my friends will scream, “What about left-wing media?” The people who know me best agree that I’m absolutely not a shill for the left-wing media, the Democratic Party, etc. (Reading a sample of my columns should confirm as much.) Thus, I can state with confidence that there is no left-wing analog to right-wing media — not in scope, not in scale, not in intent.
Is there “bias” in left-wing media? The answer is an unequivocal “yes.” The mainstream media apparatus is replete with people who went to the same schools, who hold the same political and social views, and who evince an East Coast or West Coast elitism. But a simple fact of life is that there is a difference between bias and inaccuracy. There is a difference between lacking self-awareness about one’s biases as compared to purposely peddling outright falsehoods to advance an agenda.
The New York Times and CNN, to use two examples, fall all over themselves to “get the story right.” They also go out of their way to hire conservative voices in a legitimate attempt to balance their punditry. Perhaps most importantly, they issue genuine mea culpas when they realize that they have gotten a story wrong. Very little of this integrity applies to right-wing outlets like Breitbart or even Fox News.
My great fear is that this state of affairs will be permanent. We are faced with quite a dilemma. How do we recover from this situation when legions of people immediately dismiss those who accurately point out that their beliefs, though sincerely held, are objectively false? Their mistrust is so deep that it extends even to their former allies, who they believe have either been co-opted or were “planted” by any number of nefarious actors (e.g., members of “the deep state”).
I make no apologies if I sound hyperbolic or even alarmist. Yelling “Fire!” when witnessing a house burning down is the right thing to do. Next week I will offer solutions to this dilemma — or at least measures to combat it.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at email@example.com.