Among the tasks of a journalist used to be to tell people when public officials were lying. The other day I had to admit that this might no longer be the case as I worked on an item about a politician’s fib and the editorial side of my brain suddenly interrupted to point out that, given the quantity of such stories these days, this particular one was not significant enough to be worth reporting. In other words, political dissembling had become so prolific that lies were now in the news category of rainstorms, something of little journalistic interest unless they knocked down trees, flooded basements or delayed rush hour traffic.
This perception was further confirmed listening to some of the speakers at the Democratic convention. I had earnestly noted GOP dishonesty in recent weeks and was prepared to relax and enjoy some well hewn counter arguments. Instead I found myself watching what seemed like MSNBC on steroids, which is pretty bad since MSNBC already sounds as though it’s on steroids. Listening to the crowd cheering excessively at each nugget of hype even began to make me feel a little frightened. The sound was not that of dynamic debate but of a mindlessly obedient audience urging on doctrinal lecternal excess, a scene that brought back memories of history’s far grimmer examples.
But didn’t, for example, Bill Clinton tell the truth? After all, the fact checkers said so, those strange new creatures providing what blogger Atrios described as, “the weird spectacle of journalists effectively arguing that the truth isn't really their beat.”
The problem is that, as advertising agencies learned long ago, the facts can be correct yet the story still be false.
For example there are the facts one decides not to tell. In Clinton’s case this would include his signing of the Glass Steagall act and other major contributions to the current fiscal crisis.
As I wrote some time back, “Although the media and liberals rarely recognize it, Bill Clinton played a major role in creating the current financial crisis. His signing of the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act – which regulated banks for six decades – was one of the most damaging decisions made by a president in modern history."
And historian Ralph Bauer noted,
Just days after the administration (including the Treasury Department) agrees to support the repeal, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, the former co-chairman of a major Wall Street investment bank, Goldman Sachs, raises eyebrows by accepting a top job at Citigroup as [CEO Sanford] Weill's chief lieutenant…Of course, beyond this we have the extraordinary corruption of the Clinton years which liberals and the media continue to ignore or deny. At the convention Clinton was hailed as an American hero. Is that an honest way to describe someone whose record includes being the only president ever impeached on grounds of personal malfeasance, the one with the most number of convictions and guilty pleas by friends and associates, the most number of cabinet officials to come under criminal investigation, and the most number of witnesses to flee country or refuse to testify just to name a few items a responsible press might have mentioned in discussing Clinton.
When Bill Clinton gave that pen [at the signing] to Sanford Weill, it symbolized the ending of the twentieth century Democratic Party that had created the New Deal. Although the 1999 law did not repeal all of the banking Act of 1933, retaining the FDIC, it did once again allow banks to enter the securities business, becoming what some term ‘whole banks.’…With the stroke of a pen, Bill Clinton ended an era that stretched back to William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson and reached fruition with FDR and Harry Truman.”
They might also have mentioned his role in getting NAFTA passed and damaging public welfare for the poor.
There was much other matter at the convention designed to create an impression with little relation to reality. No, Joe Biden, Barack Obama did not create 4.5 million jobs; he only helped, and in to a degree that can not be defined by math. What’s the difference between “We built it” and “We created them?”
Narcissism can be as big a distortion as a direct lie. To create a fictional world in which everything good is the result of one man’s action may not be a technical falsehood but is far from the truth.
The excessive autobiographical justifications of and by speakers got so bad that I wanted to replace all of them with, from the descriptions at least, their clearly better mothers. And while it was nice for the vice president to become so emotional over the deaths of American veterans, it would have been helpful if the media at least had asked how many of the lives could have been saved if the foreign policies of Biden and others hadn’t been so terrible.
The scariest moment in the whole week came when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles announced that the delegates had just approved the reinsertion of the supposedly sanctified place of Jerusalem and God into the party platform. Without a hint of irony, Villaraigosa declared that two thirds of those present had approved the change, something the simplest sound meter would have shown to have been false.
What was scary was to watch Villaraigosa lie so easily in front of millions of Americans and not have anyone say a mumblin’ word.
Now some may be rightfully thinking that the lies of the Republicans have been far worse. True, but this is a pretty low standard. After all, you expect a crook to act like a crook. You expect your supposed ally to act like one.
It seems, however, that our whole culture now accepts as normal a level of dishonesty, exaggeration and propaganda that once would have repelled it. Which is one reason TV shows like Newsroom and Good Wife are so appealing; they look into a contemporary world in which people supposedly on the same side at a TV network or law firm no longer trust each other.
We also find it every day in a journalism that has come to think of messages as more important than actions and that judges these messages by their cleverness rather than their integrity.
As for students, the NY Times reports:
In surveys of high school students, the Josephson Institute of Ethics, which advises schools on ethics education, has found that about three-fifths admit to having cheated in the previous year — and about four-fifths say their own ethics are above average. Few schools “place any meaningful emphasis on integrity, academic or otherwise, and colleges are even more indifferent than high schools,” said Michael Josephson, president of the institute.While it is true that we have always had lying politicians, we mainly forgave or tolerated them based on their actions and not how cute they looked on a platform.
The father of modern political propaganda was Joseph Goebbels who once said, “Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.” The more we imitate his values in the use of language the more we risk creating political monsters who imitate policies his language supported.
To be sure, we are still far from there, but don’t forget that we have lost more civil liberties since 9/11 than in the whole rest of our history combined.
As Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, said:
There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said -- no. But somehow we missed it. . .There is still time for us. But it’s running out.