It's easy - and not wrong - to think
that truth is in dire danger in the era of Donald Trump.
His own record of
issuing breathtaking falsehoods from the exalted platform of the White House is
unprecedented in American history. So is his consistent refusal to
back down when a statement is proven false. In Trump's world, those who expose
his lies are the liars and facts that show he was wrong are "fake news."
In this war on truth, Trump has
several important allies. One is the shameful silence of
Republican politicians who don't challenge his misstatements for fear of giving
offense to his true-believing base. Another is a media environment far more
cluttered and chaotic than in past decades, making it easier for people to find
stories that fit their preconceived ideas and screen out those they prefer not
These trends come in the context of a
more general loosening of
the informal rules that once put some limits on the tone and content of
political speech. American politicians have always done plenty of exaggerating,
lying by omission, selecting misleading facts, and using slanted language.
Typically, though,if not always, they tried to avoid outright, provable lies,
which it was commonly assumed would be politically damaging if exposed.
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politicians show no apparent
embarrassment about lying. Take, for instance, Corey Stewart, the Republican
candidate trying to unseat Virginia's Democratic senator, Tim Kaine. Stewart
unapologetically told the Washington Post about
a doctored photograph his campaign distributed, "Of course it was
In the altered photo, an image of a much younger
Kaine is spliced in to make it appear that he is sitting with a group of armed
Central American guerrillas. The caption under the picture says, "Tim Kaine
worked in Honduras to promote his radical socialist ideology," suggesting the
photo proves that he consorted with violent leftist revolutionaries while
working at a Jesuit mission in Honduras at the start of the 1980s.
In reality, the guerrillas in the
original photograph (which dates from well after Kaine's time in Central
America) were not leftists and not in Honduras, but right-wing Contra
insurgents in Nicaragua. So the visual was a double fake, putting Kaine in a
scene he wasn't in and then falsely describing the scene. When I read the
story, I wondered whether Stewart would think it legitimate if an opponent
Photoshopped him into a picture of American Nazis brandishing swastika flags.
(If anyone asked him that question, I have not found a record of it.)
It may still be uncommon for a
politician to acknowledge a deception as forthrightly as Stewart did, but it
does seem that politicians today feel - and probably are - freer to lie than
they used to be.
So, yes, truth is facing a serious
crisis in the present moment. But two things are worth remembering. First, that
crisis did not begin with Donald Trump. It has a long history. Second, and
possibly more sobering, truth may be more fragile and lies more powerful than
most of us, journalists included, would like to believe. That means the wounds
Trump and his allies have inflicted - on top of earlier ones - may prove harder
to heal than we think.
An Early Lesson
I began learning about the fragility
of truth many years ago.
George Wallace, the segregationist
governor of Alabama, taught me an early lesson. In the spring of 1964, less
than a year after his notorious"stand in the schoolhouse door" attempt to
block two black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, he came
to Maryland as a candidate in
the Democratic presidential primary (not to be confused with his more widely
remembered presidential runs in 1968 and 1972).
His real target wasn't the
presidential nomination but the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then being filibustered
in the Senate. There were plenty of segregationist Democrats in Maryland then
and Wallace calculated that scoring a significant vote there (as well as in a
couple of other states) would send a message to Senate Democrats that
supporting civil rights was politically perilous.
I was 23 that spring, barely halfway
through my second year as a reporter, when I was assigned as the (very) junior
half of the Baltimore Sun's two-man team covering the primary campaign. I was
under the direction of the Sun's chief political reporter, an old-timer named
Charlie Whiteford. But Charlie didn't hog all the big stories, as would have
happened on most newspapers. In an effort to show balanced and even-handed
reporting - an appearance the Sun in those days went to extreme lengths to
maintain - he switched off with me, so that his byline and mine would appear
alternately over stories about each candidate. As a result, young and green as
I was, I got to cover Wallace's rallies on a roughly equal basis with my senior
From the start, I heard the governor
saying things about the civil rights bill that weren't just misleading or
slanted in ways I was already accustomed to hearing, even that early in my
reporting life, but unequivocally false. After the first rally I attended, I
got a copy of the bill from the Sun's library and carried it with me for the
rest of the campaign, so I could accurately cite Wallace's misstatements as I
was typing my stories.
The first time I nailed his lies in
print, I was smug. Maybe he can get away with this stuff in Alabama, I remember
thinking, but the Baltimore Sun will keep him straight in Maryland. Very soon,
though, I found out that I couldn't have been more wrong. The people Wallace
was speaking to believed him, not the Sun, and Wallace knew that. He didn't
care in the least what I wrote about him and kept right on offering his
untruths about the civil rights bill.
More than a half century has passed
since I learned that lesson, and it's still sobering: when people like a
politician's lies better than they like the truth, it's tough to change their
minds, and even after lies are proven false, they can remain a powerful force
in public life.
Learning Another Lesson,
Far From Home
Thirteen years later, in a factory on
the other side of the Earth, I had another moment of truth that taught what
might be an even more chilling lesson: lies can still have power even when we
know they're lies.
That moment came during my first trip
to China in May 1977, eight months after the death of that country's leader,
Mao Zedong. As the Sun's correspondent in Hong Kong, still under British rule
at the time, I had been writing about Chinese affairs for nearly four years.
But that visit, seven days in and around the city of Guangzhou (then commonly
called Canton), was the first time I was able to look with my own eyes at a
country still largely closed to the outside world.
On one of those days, my minders took
me to the Guangzhou Heavy Machinery Plant, which manufactured equipment for oil
refineries, chemical and metallurgical factories, and other industrial
facilities. Its walls were plastered with posters showing standard images of
Chairman Mao and of soldiers, workers, and peasants heroically struggling to
realize his socialist ideals. The scene I saw from a catwalk over the factory
floor, however, looked nothing like those melodramatic images. A few workers
were tending machines or trundling wheelbarrows across the floor, but most were
standing around idly, sipping tea, chatting in small groups, or reading
I was startled by that very unheroic
scene and even more startled when it dawned on me why I was so surprised. It
wasn't discovering that those propaganda images were false. I knew that
already. Instead, I realized that even knowing that, I had still unconsciously
expected to see workers looking like the men and women shown on those posters,
faces glowing with devotion while giving their all to carry out "Chairman Mao's
Until that moment I would have said
with absolute certainty that I was immune to such Chinese propaganda. I had
seen too many of its crude falsifications, such as the doctored photographs of
Mao's funeral that had run only months earlier in the same publications that
regularly showed those heroic workers. Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, and her three
principal associates had been in the front row of mourners when the photos were
taken. Only a couple of weeks later, they were arrested and denounced as
counter-revolutionary criminals. The Chinese media kept on publishing those
funeral photos, but with Jiang and her allies - now labeled the Gang of Four - airbrushed out. Blurred smudges or blank spots appeared where they had been
shown in the originals, while vertical rows of x's blotted out their names in
the captions. (Had anyone asked about the retouching, it's a safe bet that
Chinese authorities would have answered with the 1976 equivalent of "Of course
they were Photoshopped.")
Having seen those and so many other
transparently false words and images, I could not believe I would ever confuse
any official Chinese government lies with reality. Still, there I was on that
factory catwalk, stunned to realize that those propaganda images had shaped
what I expected to see, even though I knew perfectly well that they were
That moment, too, taught me a lasting
lesson: that truth could be a fragile thing not just in the outside world but
inside my own mind and memory.
A Campaign to Undermine
By these recollections from four or
five decades ago, I don't mean to suggest that there's nothing new about the
immediate crisis. Quite the opposite. President Trump's outlandish untruthfulness,
an increasingly chaotic media landscape,
and the decline of traditional habits of
political speech unquestionably represent a new and deeply alarming threat to
public discourse and the foundations of democratic government.
One element of that crisis in today's
political and cultural wars is the campaign to undermine public trust in
journalists and other watchdogs, the very people who are supposed to counter
fake facts with real ones.
That campaign isn't new. Attacks on
news organizations (most prominently from the right but also from the left) go
back at least to the 1960s. Under Trump, however, that assault has become
uglier, more intense - and more dangerous.
Calling journalists "enemies of
the American people," for example, doesn't just raise echoes of past
totalitarian regimes. It
gives aid and comfort to present-day officials and lawmakers who want to avoid
being held publicly accountable for their acts. That applies not just in the United
States but internationally. Trump's anti-media rhetoric abetsrepressive rulers across the
world who suppress independent, critical reporting in their countries.
A recent column by
the Washington Post's Jackson Diehl documented the worldwide impact of
Trump's anti-media assault. He reported that his search for examples "turned up
28 countries where the terms 'fake news' or 'false news' have been used to
attack legitimate journalists and truthful reporting" during Trump's time in
office. Around the world, Diehl found, authoritarian leaders like Rodrigo Duterte of
the Philippines, Cambodia's Hun Sen, and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdoganhave
explicitly endorsed the American president's attacks or echoed his exact words
while cracking down on press freedom in their own countries.
Journalists have responded to Trump
with an outpouring of indignant commentary - an understandable reaction, though
it's far from clear whether it helps or hurts their cause. A gesture like
the Boston Globe'sinitiative last
month that led more than 300 newspapers across
the country to publish editorials on the same day calling for freedom of the
press and attacking Trump's stance on the media raised valid challenges to the
president's charges, but also may have cemented in place a kind of equivalency
in the public mind: Trump is against journalists, journalists are against
Beyond reasonable doubt, that
equivalency reinforces Trump's side more than it defends good reporting or
strengthens public knowledge. For his supporters, it validates his posturing as
a president besieged by a hostile media - and his repeated insistence that
stories he doesn't like are "fake facts." Pious editorials declaring
journalists' devotion to truth and fervently exalting the First Amendment may
be justified, but as a practical matter, eloquent self-righteousness seems
unlikely to be an effective weapon in the war against the war on truth.
It would be nice to think that
tougher, more factual reporting would be more helpful, but as I learned
covering the Wallace campaign all those years ago, that has its limits, too.
How to Be Right (Always)
I couldn't read George Wallace's mind
in 1964 and can't read Donald Trump's 54 years later. So what follows is
speculation, not verifiable fact. With that qualifier, my impression is that
Trump's falsehoods come from a different place and have a different character
than Wallace's. If there's a Wallace reincarnation on the landscape today, it
would be someone more like Corey Stewart. Wallace might not have said it to a
reporter - though I did sometimes sense an unseen wink in our direction when he
delivered some outrageous statement - but I strongly suspect that "of course it
was Photoshopped," adjusted for the different technology of that era, exactly
reflected his attitude.
President Trump looks like a quite
different case. He clearly lies consciously at times, but generally the style
and content of his falsehoods give the impression that he has engaged in a kind
of internal mental Photoshopping, reshaping facts inside his mind until they
conform to something he wants to say at a given moment.
A recent report in the Daily
Beast described an episode that fits remarkably well with that theory.
As told by the Daily Beast's
Asawin Suebsaeng, at a March 2017 White House meeting between the president and
representatives of leading veterans organizations, Rick Weidman of Vietnam
Veterans of America brought up the subject of Agent Orange, the widely used
U.S. defoliant that has had long-term health effects on American soldiers and
As Suebsaeng reconstructed the
discussion, Trump responded by asking if Agent Orange was "that stuff from that
movie" - a reference evidently to the 1979 film Apocalypse Now. Several
veterans in the room tried to explain to the president that the scene he
remembered involved napalm, an incendiary agent, not Agent Orange. But Trump
wouldn't back down, Suebsaeng recounted, "and proceeded to say things like, 'no, I think it's that stuff from that movie." His comment directly to Weidman
was, "Well, I think you just didn't like the movie."
What makes the Daily
Beast report particularly revealing is not just that Trump was ignorant of
the facts and would not listen to people who clearly knew better. That behavior
is all too familiar to anyone even casually aware of Trump's record. The
argument with the veterans was different because his misstatement did not arise
from any of the usual reasons. He was not answering a critic or tearing down
someone who frustrated him or making an argument for a policy opinion or
defending some past statement.
Sticking to his version of Agent
Orange was purely a reflection of his personality. On a subject one can safely
assume he had not thought about until that moment, he seized on a fragmentary
memory of something he'd seen on a screen years earlier, jumped to a wrong
conclusion, and was then immediately convinced that he was correct solely
because he had heard himself saying it - not only certain that he was right,
but oblivious to the fact that everyone he was talking to knew more about the
subject than he did.
In effect, this story strongly
suggests, Trump's thought process (if you can call it that) boils down
to: I am right because I am always
Lots of people absorb facts
selectively and adapt them to fit opinions they already hold. That's human
nature. But the president's ability to twist the truth, consciously or not, is
extreme. So is his apparently unshakable conviction that no matter what the
subject is, no one knows more than he does, which means he has no need to
listen to anyone who tries to correct his misstatements. In a person with his
power and responsibilities, those qualities are truly frightening.
As alarming as his record is, though,
it would be a serious mistake to think of Trump as the only or even the
principal enemy of truth and truth-tellers. There is a large army out
there churning out false information, using technology that lets them spread
their messages to a mass audience with minimal effort and expense. But the
largest threat to truth, I fear, is not from the liars and truth twisters, but
from deep in our collective and individual human nature. It's the same threat I
glimpsed all those years ago at George Wallace's rallies in Maryland and on
that factory floor in China: the tendency to believe comfortable lies instead
of uncomfortable truths and to trust our own assumptions instead of looking at
That widespread and deep-rooted
failure of critical thinking in American society today has helped make Trump
and his enablers, like other liars before them, successful in the war against
truth. In the words of
the mid-twentieth-century cartoonist Walt Kelly's comic-strip character, Pogo
the Possum, "We have met the enemy and it is us." That's a powerful enemy.
Whether there's an effective way for the forces of truth to oppose it is far