What Is Truth?
Michael P. Jaycox
I quote the haunting words of Pontius Pilate, “what is truth?” (Jn 18:38), to frame a trend observed in the relationship between the mainstream U.S. news media and the newly elected Trump administration. Journalists are not only reporting on the information they can verify as being factually true. They are also reporting on—or rather, trying to make sense of—the contradictory worlds of information that compete to be perceived as true.
Their efforts are laudable, due the fact that it is the solemn duty of journalists to seek truth and report it and to hold political leaders accountable to the truth. Absent the virtue of journalistic vigilance, the way lies open for democracies to be replaced by alternatives such as demagoguery or totalitarian systems of government.
Nevertheless, as an ethicist I am troubled by the question of whether journalists are equipped professionally to offer critical analysis of contradictory information worlds. Lately some journalists are reluctant to use the terms “lie” and “lying” to describe a pattern of counterfactual claims made by Trump and his administration. Instead, some journalists describe these counterfacts as “falsehoods” and “provably not true.” Interestingly, the defense journalists offer for their scrupulous restraint is their lack of ability to know intent. According to this view, journalists can use their training to prove whether an individual’s statement contradicts information previously established as factual, but to prove that an individual intended to deceive the audience by making a counterfactual statement is much more difficult and, apparently, beyond their capacity.
These journalists are obviously not referring to a technical, ethical concept of intentionality, but does their view of the distinction between telling a falsehood and lying even meet a public standard of discerning intention in speech?
Conventional wisdom holds it is reasonable to not presume the intention of another’s statements. Further, American legal institutions have created a broader legalistic culture of forensic truth, wherein intent must always be proven to determine responsibility. Theological traditions seem to corroborate these views, reminding us that human beings “look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7). Ignatius of Loyola likewise counsels us “to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it,” since the presumption to know another’s intent is often itself erroneous.
However, we must be careful that an otherwise appropriate attentiveness to individual subjectivity does not result in the collapse of our shared, culturally embedded methods for assessing intent in the everyday speech of those with whom we share relationship. We know what the non-verbal gestures and cues are. If nothing else, we have a sense of trust or doubt about another’s intent.
Moreover, even if questions of individual intent are set aside, there always remains the social context that makes a false statement seem plausible, and there are always social consequences of speaking falsely. In many if not most cases, the social impact of speech matters more than the individual speaker’s intent. Here the scriptural injunction “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” is apt, not because invoking a negative precept straightforwardly settles the question. Perhaps the biblical authors were more cognizant than contemporary U.S. society that truth can be elusive, and as socially mediated it is fragile. Even more fragile are the reputations and livelihoods of those groups who typically bear the consequences of false witness. If false speech results in harm to the lives of vulnerable groups, then regardless of intent such speech counts as lying and dishonesty in the deepest sense of those words.
Second, it is vital for journalists to call the false statements of Trump and company lies because he and his administration occupy the role of public officials. By virtue of the offices they hold, this particular group of individuals arguably has the greatest responsibility of anyone in U.S. society to seek out and report reliable information relevant to the enforcement of federal law and the formulation of domestic and foreign policy. The manifest ignorance of this group is therefore all the more culpable. When such disregard for truth becomes the driving force behind public statements, questions of intent are virtually moot since those statements are clearly intended to deceive. The impact, or more precisely the damage being done to the republic and to the already weakened bonds of civil society is proportionately far more troubling. Such statements are, in effect, culpable lies because the public has a right to truthful speech from their political leaders. How else will the public be able to trust anything these leaders say?
Third, calling the Trump administration’s false statements “lies” as the word of choice is a first step that journalists can and should apply to their reporting. Taking the historical and political long view, as a second step they should consider using the more accurate and appropriate term “propaganda”. As the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Jason Stanley have noted, the goal of propagandists is “to sketch out a consistent system that is simple to grasp, one that both constructs and simultaneously provides an explanation for grievances against various out-groups. It is openly intended to distort reality, partly as an expression of the leader’s power.” When Trump circulates propaganda about immigrant, refugee, Muslim, and African-American communities in order to identify them as “out-groups”, he is effectively circumventing the democratic function of journalists in differentiating fact from intentionally deceptive fiction. Simply put, his propagandist manner of communicating attempts to create a different factual reality on his own terms to better serve his interests.
The historical record of fascism (Italy's Mussolini, Germany's Hitler) has taught us that when journalists don’t take the risk of calling false statements lies and propaganda they are likely to face the greater risk of normalizing demagoguery and becoming pawns in a political chess game. Let this historical memory stand as a warning for the journalistic profession and citizens of U.S. society in the present.