The Problem of Truth

Author Brisbane of the New York Times has been mocked through the internet for his recent post entitled:  Should the Times be a Truth Vigilante?  The response to this from most has been along the lines of, “Duh!”  People want journalists to report the truth, and to do so vigorously.  But the point bungled, perhaps even missed, by Brisbane, is that the truth isn’t always clear, and that there are things like opinion, characterization, and summary.

So take this, from Brisbane:

Another example: on the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often says President Obama has made speeches “apologizing for America,” a phrase to which Paul Krugman objected in a December 23 column arguing that politics has advanced to the “post-truth” stage. As an Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Krugman clearly has the freedom to call out what he thinks is a lie. My question for readers is: should news reporters do the same? If so, then perhaps the next time Mr. Romney says the president has a habit of apologizing for his country, the reporter should insert a paragraph saying, more or less: “The president has never used the word ‘apologize’ in a speech about U.S. policy or history. Any assertion that he has apologized for U.S. actions rests on a misleading interpretation of the president’s words.”

Is Romney lying when he says that the President apologizes for America?  To be sure, the President hasn’t said, “I apologize for America.”  But it’s absurd for that to be the standard.  We’ve all heard and given apologizes that don’t actually use the word “apologize.”  

Take this bit from the President’s speech in Cairo in 2009:

Let me also address the issue of Iraq. Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq was a war of choice that provoked strong differences in my country and around the world. Although I believe that the Iraqi people are ultimately better off without the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, I also believe that events in Iraq have reminded America of the need to use diplomacy and build international consensus to resolve our problems whenever possible. Indeed, we can recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, who said: “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power the greater it will be.”

There are two things I think about this paragraph.  First, I think it’s an apology for the arrogance we showed in the Iraq War.  Second, I think it was completely appropriate and necessary.  If Obama supporters are honest with themselves, they ought to agree with both points.  But even if they won’t agree to the first, surely they must see how this might be interpreted by some as an apology.  My advice to Obama supporters:  Don’t fear the word apology.  Defend it.  Our country ought to apologize when we make mistakes.  

When Romney says that Obama apologizes for America, he’s making a characterization that is grounded in fact.  It’s irresponsible for Brisbane to say that it’s a mischaracterization of the President’s words.  

When Sarah Palin said that Obamacare would involve “death panels,” it was called the lie of the year.  But under Obamacare, there will be panels of people who decide what is covered and what is not under various plans, and as a result of their decisions, some people will die.  That’s a fact.  No, these panels aren’t called death panels.  They just happen to be panels that will make decisions that will result in death.  It is ridiculous to call Sarah Palin’s characterization a lie.  Yes, her characterization is inflammatory.  It’s divisive.   Maybe it’s even unfair.  But it’s not false.  Don’t call it a lie.  Respond by saying that private insurers already make life and death decisions.  Respond by arguing that more lives will be saved overall with Obamacare (if you believe that).  But when you say your opponent is lying, it’s a way of disengaging from the debate, instead of actually taking it on and winning it.

Last year, Politifact said the lie of the year was Democrats’ claim that Republicans had voted to end Medicare.  Democrats argued that it wasn’t a lie; the Republican plan would have ended Medicare as we know it, keeping only its name.  And that’s a perfectly legitimate political argument.  To call it a lie is to demand that Democrats acquiesce Republican nomenclature.  That’s absurd.  When Obama called his health care plan the Affordable Care Act, Republicans rightly called it Obamacare instead.  Why should they have to use Obama’s preferred title?  Nothing about it was affordable.  Likewise, just because Republicans claim to keep something called “Medicare” doesn’t mean Democrats can’t legitimately claim Republicans want to get rid of Medicare.

Brisbane has the problem all wrong.  The problem isn’t that journalists don’t pursue the truth.  The problem is that journalists don’t understand what the truth is.  

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