A crisis of Truth in America

The opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence contains the five “W’s”: who, what, where, when and why. In the first line following the opening paragraph, the Declaration then begins in detail by stating that the document is rooted in “truths” which are so easily understood they are “self-evident.” Clarity of truth was critical in creating America. Lack of both will be the cause of its destruction.

As ideology and obfuscation has increased in importance in America’s media, the value of truth and clarity of message has declined. The cost of accepting ever declining standards in media and government statements may be freedom. For without truth and trust in the messengers who bring it, can freedom survive? 

Too long ago, in what often is referred to as simpler times, if an article appeared in a newspaper it was not unreasonable to accept it as the truth about what happened; where it happened, when it happened, and who was involved. If the report was accurate it may have offered a fifth component; why it happened. But the why was traditionally limited to the physical world, not opinion about the ideological causes of the event.

For most of the first two centuries of American history the free press honored those ‘5 W’s.’ The value for the people of the new United States having access to truth – especially about their government – was so important to the founders that the freedom of the press was prominently included in the Constitution. ‘Why’ was always listed last because it was understood, if not an unwritten law of editors, that only if the truth about the first four was known could someone possibly explain why it happened. The ‘why’ of a house fire might have been answered by the fireman who found defective wiring; or a bridge collapse might be explained by engineers who had studied the wreckage. 

Today it seems ‘why’ has evolved to become the dominant feature of reporting in the media. Reporters write as though their first obligation is to explain the why – even if or before they know the facts of who, what, where and when. News has become openly driven by ideology. Today the who, what, where, and when are even altered to fit the why and lead to the desired conclusion. When viewers or readers believe they have independently drawn the same conclusion as the reporter, they build confidence in their news source. Thus as the value of ‘why’ evolved to become the keystone of many media news stories, the value of the truth declined. 

With the value of truth reduced, the esteem of the messenger is far less likely to suffer if it is discovered he made false statements in an effort to lead his audience to a conclusion. An infamous example of this is the award for excellence in journalism CBS anchor man Dan Rather received even after it was documented he had presented a fictitious story. Rather claimed he had and anonymous source who found presidential candidate George Bush had lied about his service record. Rather ‘s report was trusted and repeated for several days by other news outlets before the records were actually examined and it became known Rather had completely made up his report.  Yet the damage to the candidate Rather opposed had already been done. 

Clearly, in ‘simpler times’ such an egregious act against the truth and trust of the public would have ended the career of the reporter. But instead of being chastised and ridiculed, Rather’s story was simply thrown into the category of just another political campaign lie. Instead of shame, Rather continued his career as an honored statesman of the media.

With the phenomenon of information on the internet becoming a leading source of news, the ability to distinguish truth from fiction and half-truths has become a task far too difficult for the overwhelming majority of people.  No longer can readers trust information simply because they found the same information on several different internet sites, or in print media. In minutes a single false report can become thousands, never being verified beyond the sheer numbers of other websites with the same story. 

The reversal of order of the 5Ws of news has led to the inability of the public to distinguish fact from opinion in media reports.  An attitude accepting that “they all lie” has led the decline in the quality of our government – a system fundamentally built on the morality of those who govern. Political campaigns are repeat with ads which distort an opponent’s record beyond recognition and pull copy so far out of context it reverses the truth of the statement. New technology has enabled words to be rearranged in audio clips and a candidate is “heard” making statements never spoken. But so long as the offending candidate denies control over his supporters’ freedom of speech and other activities, the public refuses to demand better morality by the candidates and eventually those who become government leaders.

Will the degree and quantity of such immoral tactics continue to become more and more successful in political campaigns? Will Americans feel the only way to regain control of truth is to redefine the perimeters of freedom of speech? Can Americans be convinced of the need for ‘truth police?’ If a new government agency is created and placed in charge of insuring truth is created, who will be policing the ‘truth police?’; Politicians who won election by avoiding and distorting the truth?

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