Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Robert Samuelson’s Lament For Truth


Dear Colleagues:

Robert Samuelson, a leading columnist, regularly writes on economics for Newsweek, and writes for The Washington Post as well. About two weeks ago, with the conventions and the campaign coming upon us, he wrote a column on the status of truth in presidential elections: he thinks it is in relatively short supply. The media, he says, are "supposed to be in the truth-telling business," but campaigns "draw us inexorably into a labyrinth of lies and deceits." Politicians speak utter nonsense -- they say things which should cause the speakers to "be barred from office" if they truly believed them.

"But the media," says Samuelson, "treat these routine untruths as respectable statements that ought to be analyzed and debated." The media "cannot be dismissive without appearing arrogant, partisan or both. So we let these rhetorical stupidities stand." Beyond that, "Some political reporters (who, as a class, are generally uninterested in policy, although they’re remarkably well-informed and smart about politics) may not even recognize them as stupidities."

Samuelson also devotes space to the fact that the politicians fail to discuss some crucial issues at all lest they lose votes, and the media does not call them upon this. Rather, "the media condone the silence."

Later in his column, Samuelson lets up a good bit on the pols and the press, roughly taking the position that what is occurring is the best we can do. He ends, however, by saying that "those of us [in the media] who think we’re a powerful force for clarity and candor ought to sober up. Mostly, we’re part of the clatter."

With the arguable exception of the parts of his column where he lets up on the pols and the press, Samuelson is right on the nose. We live in a society where truth is greatly devalued. We have come to expect politicians to lie and to b.s. us, and that is what they do. Much of the press is simply ignorant about matters of policy and fact. This (major) part of the press cares more about what is called the horse race aspects of politics -- who is ahead and why, what will his opponent say or do to try to catch up, etc. -- than about the substance of things fought for. Voters who wish for better have nonetheless learned in disgust not to expect it. And every four years we face a new abysmal choice at the top, not to mention all the other bad choices we get then and at other times.

All of this is, at bottom, the result of lack of concern for truth, notwithstanding the media’s omnipresent claim that it exists to pursue truth. If there were concern for truth, reporters would learn the ins and outs of serious issues so that they could present these matters to readers, viewers and listeners. If there were concern for truth, intelligence agencies would not have ignored the amazing number of warnings they got about terrorism and, very specifically, about using planes as missiles -- which, incidentally, had advertently or inadvertently occurred or been tried many times previously, from the bomber that ran into the Empire State Building in World War II, to the Japanese kamikazes, to the small plane that hit the White House, to the attempt to ram the Eiffel Tower. (Not to mention that in the late ‘90s the government received reports of the possibility that planes might be used as missiles, and the North American Aerospace Defense Command had even developed exercises and had planned a drill to counter this.) If there were concern for truth, the 9/11 commission, as Kevin Phillips has said, would have named names when assessing responsibility for the debacle that occurred on that date and, as Gerald Posner has pointed out, would have asked more questions about and not made mistakes about members of the bin Laden family flying out of the country shortly after 9/11. If there were concern for truth, reporters would not feel the need to report imbecilic comments just because they are made by "important" people, would not feel the need to devote time and space to the various manifestations in other fields of the equivalent of flat earthers and holocaust deniers, and would cover the views of intelligent people and experts even if they are not well known celebrities.

But this is not a country whose politicians and media place a premier emphasis on truth, and sometimes they place little emphasis at all on it. And so now, in an immediately contemporaneous example of this phenomenon, as the conventions have approached, almost nothing was said in the media about the fact that John Kerry’s position on Iraq is, like George Bush’s, that we have to stay there. Can you beat it? -- the war in Iraq has wrecked the presidency of the second Bush (who, of course, is none too bright to begin with), yet Kerry and his Democrats are taking pretty much the same position as to our future in Iraq as Bush is (and as Johnson and Nixon took in Viet Nam). But most of the press has hardly even mentioned this. Wow! That shows real concern for truth, doesn’t it?

So . . . . Robert Samuelson’s lament for truth is all too accurate. And we might as well accept that, because of the lack of concern for truth among our politicians and press, this country is in real trouble and is going to stay there. The reason is that respect for and seeking out the truth is a necessary condition to solving problems. You cannot solve problems by accepting, believing, and mouthing falsities and error (or our venture in Iraq would have been a smashing success, as Viet Nam would have been before it). Falsities and error will not set you free. Only the truth can. Respect for truth is not merely idealistic. To the contrary: it is the only practical course. It is too bad that the only practical course is not followed in this country until years after disasters occur -- and even then the truth is partly ignored.*

*If you wish to respond to this email/blog, please email your response to me at velvel@mslaw.edu. Your response may be posted on the blog if you have no objection; please tell me if you do object.

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