Instant gratification media culture has seeped into the pores of the political arena, and the result is some very creative reporting and selective listening on the part of most media outlets—particularly major ones. These days, nearly anyone can pick up the political rag of his choice and find exactly what he wants to hear, backed up by purportedly legitimate scientists, scholars, and policy analysts to boot. Global warming, anyone?
I find this quite disconcerting. It is as though the roles of fact and opinion have become reversed. For example, whether or not someone has lied is not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact. Either Bush lied, or he didn’t. From the establishment of a fact, an opinion may be formed: Bush did or didn’t lie, and therefore this or that opinion on the matter. True, political spin and issue framing have encouraged the victim mentality to flourish as a societal norm. There is always someone out to “get” someone else, always some conspiracy being covered up, and always some “legitimate” obstacle that prevents a fact (such as whether or not “Bush lied”) from being proven. But there still must be some point at which speculation diminishes and fact emerges. Someone somewhere must know the truth.
Some claims evolve to the status of fact only after the passage of time. I could have used “either Al Gore invented the Internet, or he didn’t,” as an example, but the case has been closed on that one for some time now. Even so, it’s not enough to write off the phenomenon of intentional inaccuracy in the media as a product of mere time deficiency. During the glory days of journalism, investigative reporters like Bob Woodward were praised for being the only ones brave enough, the only ones willing to tell the truth in a time when few others could be trusted (though how convenient for the “I don’t even know anyone who voted for him” crowd that Nixon was a Republican). Today, journalism has a dirty, vindictive flavor to it that applies to both sides of the fence and is difficult for either side to praise. In a recent statement, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas put it mildly when he said the media are “universally untrustworthy.”
What I’m talking about is different from the gut impulse of political rags to preach to their choir. The recent Scooter Libby conviction is a great example. Sure, The New Republic is going to tell me Libby is the spawn of Satan and the National Review is going to herald his righteousness and demand his pardon. Ideological journals aren’t designed to challenge your beliefs—they strive to reinforce the beliefs you already have (and frankly, they want your money, too). But what I’m seeing is more than that. Both The New Republic and National Review have recently covered the Libby conviction by reporting two entirely different timelines and entirely different “facts.” They are essentially two entirely different truths describing the same series of events in an equally intelligent, logical, and persuasive (dare I say believable?) manner. For two different ideological journals to report two different sets of opinions is one thing. But to report two different sets of data? Either he did, or he didn’t. Why is this so hard?
Facts in general have been elusive for as long as humans have been able to speak, and therefore to lie. This phenomenon of enigmatic pseudo-fact is nothing new. But there is a line between political spin and outright factual inaccuracy. Whatever standards there may once have been in politics, and in journalism, have crumbled fast. Political journalists on both sides of the fence have degraded en masse from crafty, hard-working spin doctors to little more than pathological liars.
The fundamentally naïve part of me wants to throw a paragraph in here about how to redeem this situation by reclaiming the things we’ve lost, something about honor and dignity and the nobility of the free press. Were I to do that, though, the cynical side of me would be scoffing right along with you. All I can glean from watching the news or reading the paper anymore is that political corruption has become so widespread and commonplace that we no longer blink at it, and we haven’t in a long time. We are lied to incessantly—and I don’t mean just Dan Rather–style. It’s all the little lies that lurk in a single sentence or a talk show’s bullet point that are really starting to get to me: things like statistics that are rounded up just a little too unjustifiably, opinions that are passed off as fact, “analysis” that is little more than the de-contextualization of an issue. And all of this goes unchecked. Americans have too many demands on their time to run around picking up a newspaper’s slack by fact-checking everything themselves, so most of these lies slide under the radar with ease.
I like to think Bob Woodward wasn’t just making things up when he uncovered the Watergate scandal. I would love to think the loss of life at Chappaquiddick was reported as fairly as it would have been if Ted Kennedy were a Republican, or at least not so well connected. And it would be nice if publications like The New Republic and National Review would just call a spade a spade and stop the constant rewriting of history that stems from the desire to say “my political ideology, right or wrong… except we’re always right.”
Of course people are going to read what they want to read and believe what they want to believe, but we should be responsible enough not to conflate opinion and fact. When did it get so hard to simply be honest? Must have been somewhere around the time it got hard to say “I was wrong.”