Every one of us has wondered at some time why we even ask witnesses at a trial to take a pledge to tell the truth when on the stand. The truth we want to hear almost never comes out in the end, and lawyers (on both sides of the room) seldom want it to come out. It’s too nuanced, too obscured by the complexities of human and family relationships to make sense to anyone, let alone twelve people in a box. That’s why lawyers instruct their clients to give simple “yes” or “no” answers on the stand or in a deposition, and why those lawyers cringe when their clients go beyond the “yes” or “no” answer and say something they shouldn’t, as in the case of Bill Cosby, who cooked his own goose years ago. If the truth must come out, lawyers would prefer it come out inch by inch, as those testifying respond to precise questions by the other side.
In this way, the legal system comes closer to its goal of holding complainants and defendants accountable for only the crimes or conflicts in question, and nothing else, but the “whole” truth–whatever it is, however complex it is–invariably gets left out of testimony and the history books.
Newspapers, however, are not bound by the rules of evidence or of testimony. Their reporters have every one of us right there out in the open. They can question us and re-question us. They can talk to our friends and enemies. They can examine both public documents and private ones (assuming they can get their hands on them) in their search for the truth about a man or woman or a set of circumstances. They can, in other words, proceed in such a way as to bring to light the full truth of a subject, and they do not have to distort the truth. When newspapers do distort the truth by failing to report all of it, or by failing to give the full sense of what some public or private figure has said, they make those of us who are committed to the truth very angry, indeed, and they damage their credibility beyond repair.
Such is the case with The New York Times‘ deliberate distortion of the words of Donald Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon this past week. The headline read, “Trump’s Chief Strategist Says News Media Should ‘Keep Its Mouth Shut,'” and Twitter was all aflame with this latest and most horrifying attack on free speech. “This is chilling,” one idiot woman tweeted.
Maybe it still would have been chilling if she had bothered to read the article, but maybe not, because Bannon’s full statement and his full meaning is not reflected in the headline.
What he actually said was, “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
The statement, unfortunately, needs to be parsed, as nearly all official pronouncements need to be these days, no matter whether Republicans or Democrats make them (a consequence of the two political parties having become genuine enemies, rather than loyally opposed to each other), but it is clear that Bannon’s statement had two parts. His desire for the media to keep its mouth shut was only one part; the other part was for the media to “just listen for a while.” Keeping one’s mouth shut is a prerequisite for listening, and reporters–even from The New York Times–used to be pretty good at keeping their mouths shut and listening to the people who should be doing the talking.
Bannon may be a hothead. He may be a “shoot-from-the-hip” kind of guy. If one were to spin the headline in a positive way for the Times, the headline might have been a subtle attempt to convey something of his hotheaded nature. It is more likely, however, that the Times latched on words that could be interpreted as an attack on the press, but weren’t meant that way at all.
A reasonable person could construe Bannon’s words “the media should be embarrassed and humiliated” to mean we should all do what we can to embarrass and humiliate the media; but, in the light of what he really wants the media to do, I don’t think that’s what he meant. I think he meant to say “the media should feel embarrassed and humiliated” for failing so badly in reading the mood of the electorate and predicting the outcome of the election. If I am correct in interpreting his statement this way (and I am) the media should feel embarrassed. To most of them–the Times, CBS, NBC, ABC, HBO, MSNBC, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times–Hillary Clinton’s victory was assured. Except it wasn’t, and those few who kept their wits about them during the campaign knew that it wasn’t. They misread the electorate so completely that they have lost the “right” to claim (if indeed they ever had the “right”) that they “know what’s going on in the country.” Clearly, they don’t know.
Political operatives now find themselves in a similar situation. To those who honestly and truly believe in the socialist, collectivist vision of the contemporary Democratic Party, who distrust capitalism even as they make a superb living off of it, Steve Bannon may be nothing but a son of a bitch. If so, however, he’s an SOB with a point that should be listened to. He is correct: the apparatchiks of the Democratic Party still do not understand how or why they lost the election. They do not understand half the country they expected to govern and, in their own Trump-like way, they don’t want to.
For those of us who care about the truth being honestly and fully reported, these are troubling times. Bannon’s statement about the media needing to keep its mouth shut in order to listen is only one example of the distortions that occur daily and which we must sort through. Peter Walison recently wrote an essay on some of the more subtle distortions in the reporting of The New York Times and why they are so damaging.
In the end, the deep disagreement in this country remains the same one we’ve had since 1776: the disagreement between those who want a strong, central government and those who want a decentralized one. That simple sentence hides an enormous range of complicated issues and programs that every administration has to deal with, but it still expresses the essence of the conflict. The millions who voted for Trump, especially in the states which gave him the victory in the Electoral College, were not all motivated by their supposed status as rednecks or deplorables. They voted for Trump because he represented, despite his many flaws, a vision of a country that doesn’t draw its strength from the collectivist yearnings of the politically left-of-center. They held their nose and voted for Trump because they believed they already knew what they were going to get from Hillary Clinton and they didn’t want it. They want a country in which one has to work five days a week in order to get paid for five; they want a country whose borders are clearly safer than they are now; they want a country whose economic output primarily supports those who produce that output and supports less the people who wouldn’t like the system under any circumstances; they want a President who will be direct in his speech, rather than one whose only approach to the truth is to say, “‘I don’t believe I lied’ when I said that.”
Whether the country likes the man they’ve put in the Oval Office is another matter, and it may take the full four years to determine whether they do. In the meantime, if the media are not going to tell us the truth, it will be up to us to piece together as much of it as possible for ourselves. That’s what we’ve always had to do, anyway. Pursuit of the truth is a risky business, and, as far back in time as one can go, he’ll see that newspapers and radio stations and television networks have seldom wanted to risk the lives of their reporters in that daily task. That’s certainly understandable when covering a war. It’s a far less defensible stance when covering domestic politics.
What has happened in the recent pursuit of the truth is that newspapers have erased the divide that used to exist between straight reporting and the political stance a paper might take on the editorial page. In the old days, a reporter was supposed to report; he wasn’t supposed to make a judgment about who was right; that was the job of his paper’s editorial board. But now, today, the personal opinions of a reporter are on display in everything he writes, and he is free to distort the truth, if he wishes.
The problem, of course, is that the difference between “fact” and “opinion” no longer exists for many people. Fox News still tries to keep its straight reporting separate from its opinion shows in the evening, but there are, it would seem, a lot of people who can’t tell the difference between the two. Is it any wonder that the bizarre idea of “alternative facts” is being brought forth in serious discussions? Try bringing up the concept of “alternative facts” at a physics conference and see how far you get.
It’s enough to make a fellow lose all of his anger in sorrow, which is where anger usually winds up anyway. On the other hand, there is another alternative: keep pushing for the truth, for honesty. Absent this effort, dishonesty will have the field to itself, and that we ought not to permit. There’s too much at stake, and too much good that remains to be done.