One of the great, universal truths is that everybody lies. From tiny white lies to great big whoppers, everyone does it, even babies. Don’t believe me?
“Sorry I’m late, traffic was terrible.”
“It’s so great to see you!”
“Doing well, thanks for asking!”
“I have read and agree to the above terms and conditions.”
These are just a handful of the easy, casual lies that we all offer up on an everyday basis. And much of the time, these kinds of lies are fairly harmless. These tiny deceptions are baked into most of our social interactions and, in many ways, grease the wheels of polite society. After all, how awkward and uncomfortable would our conversations be if we actually told the truth every time someone asked how we’re doing?
These are the lies we expect to be told and are expected to tell. And while I would personally like to see more honesty in everyone’s day-to-day interactions, I understand the purpose of these kinds of deceptions.
That said, the truth always matters. We may expect some level of insincerity in certain situations, but in others, honesty is more than simply suggested—it’s required.
When it comes to reporting news, telling the truth is vitally important.
The term “fake news” has been abused to the point of uselessness, but false reporting does exist and has for a long time. The information we receive through various media outlets and platforms is frequently critical for how we plan our days and how we plan our lives. When that information is false, intentionally or not, it can cause us very real problems.
Sometimes, the consequences are as simple and relatively benign as getting caught in the rain without an umbrella. Sometimes, though—and especially with intentionally misleading or false information—the results can be devastating to livelihoods and lives.
One of the most egregious examples of this was the coordinated cover-up of the Holodomor—a famine in the Ukraine deliberately created by the Soviet Union in 1932 and ‘33.
In the span of a year, decreased output due to the forced collectivization of farms and the confiscation of foodstuffs by the Soviet army led to the deaths of between seven and ten million people, mostly ethnic Ukrainians. It was, in short, a genocide by means of starvation.
Freelance reporter Gareth Jones broke the story. He did what he was supposed to do as a journalist. He told the truth.
Unfortunately, Jones’s reporting shined an incredibly unflattering light on the fact that the news reports coming out of Moscow regarding the impressive successes of Soviet agriculture were false. Walter Duranty, the Moscow Bureau Chief for the New York Times, and the rest of the foreign press corps in Moscow promptly launched a coordinated campaign to discredit Jones’s reporting, despite the fact they all knew Jones was telling the truth.
Eugene Lyons, who was the Moscow correspondent for United Press at the time, even wrote in his 1937 book Assignment in Utopia:
Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes—but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulations of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials. … There was much bargaining in a spirit of gentlemanly give-and-take, under the effulgence of [Foreign Press Corps Soviet Official Konstantin] Umansky’s gilded smile, before a formal denial was worked out. We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that damned Jones as a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka and zakuski.
It should be noted that both Duranty and Lyons were true believers in the communist cause and didn’t hesitate to use their positions as arbiters of truth to deceive the western world regarding the actual situation in the Soviet Union. As a result, around ten million people were starved to death during the Holodomor, and yet the Soviet Union continued to be propped up by Western governments and their investments. Furthermore, in total, approximately 100 million people have been killed by communist states since the Bolshevik Revolution which was allowed, in part, by the deceptions of professional “truth-tellers.”
This is not to say that bias, in and of itself, is to blame. Another great, universal truth is that everyone has some kind of bias. No matter how hard we try to be objective and relate only the facts, at least a little bit of that bias is going to show through. But there isn’t anything inherently wrong with having a bias, especially when it’s acknowledged.
The problems come when the bias in people we rely on to report the actual facts internally absolves them of telling outright lies to further their ideological goals.
This is not a problem of the past, either. Whether it’s an incident of claiming to have COVID-19 when they don’t or building an entire career out of fabricated “news” articles, the long and sordid story of falsified reports continues to this day.
This kind of “reporting” isn’t limited to simply lying, either. Blithely passing along uninvestigated press releases or unconfirmed allegations as fact also damages our trust in news media. Given how common such reporting is, it’s no wonder trust in news media in the US is only about 29 percent.
And then we wonder why so few people comply with suggestions and warnings given by the news media.
A commonly-offered solution to this problem with news media trust is fact-checking by a small handful of officially approved arbiters. However, the reason that Duranty and the New York Times, Lyons and the United Press, and the other members of the foreign press corps in Moscow were able to cover up the horrors of the Holodomor is precisely because only a handful of media outlets were considered legitimate.
Policies, regardless of who institute them, that centralize the distribution and judgment of truth would end up doing the opposite of what they intend. We would be right back to the bad old days of journalism where media monopolies could spread misinformation largely unchallenged.
It’s not hard to find some pretty spectacular fact-checking failures, and this is beside the fact that people tend to reject fact-checks that contradict their core beliefs regardless.
We in the US enjoy fairly robust legal protections for free speech and a free press, which, to be clear, is a good thing. But what can we do when reporters don’t do their jobs correctly?
The solution is not to curb or restrict speech that doesn’t meet certain criteria. And it’s certainly not to limit the sources of various kinds of information. The only way to improve speech is to encourage more speech. We need an actual marketplace of ideas where consumers of information are able to judge for themselves what sources of that information meet their quality requirements and which do not.
The solution isn’t a single, official voice of truth. It’s billions of voices. It’s the competition of different ideas and their purveyors. It’s individuals thinking for themselves and accepting the responsibility that comes with that.
The reason the true believers of the Moscow foreign press corps faked their stories was that they feared the truth would hinder the cause they’d placed their faith in. But if a cause can be crushed by the simple telling of truth, it’s not much of a cause at all.
The truth matters and the truth will out, even in our world of “fake news” and clickbait.
But only if we let it and only if we demand it.