Lie on!

We have become cheerleaders for sham, pretense, and guile

Issue: "Taking on the thugs," Nov. 6, 1999

It used to be that while we all did at least a little bit of lying, we all also hated being lied to. But things have changed. Deliberate lying has become an acceptable practice. Supposedly honorable people shamelessly defend it. You can see the change at work in the case of Edmund Morris, the fellow who wrote the celebrated and now much-discussed Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. On the one hand, Mr. Morris's "authorized" biography pleases liberal critics a bit because the book provides them with modest ammunition to confirm their canards about Mr. Reagan's empty-headedness, his intellectual shortcomings, and his detachment from the tasks of the presidency. But a few critics are also angry at Mr. Morris because in a supposedly straightforward historical account, the biographer fabricated significant material. Columnist George Will was blunt: "What he produced is an act of bad faith." Charles Krauthammer wrote: "Morris's attempt-relentlessly inserting himself into the life of perhaps that last American world-historical figure and author of the most successful presidency of this half-century-is surely [a] spectacular exercise in parasitism. But it will not be the last." And Maureen Dowd of The New York Times noted that "we have become a culture of morphing. Entertainment has overwhelmed truth, and the universities are riddled with professors who deny that objectivity is possible." Yet amazingly, perhaps an even greater number of critics seemed to appreciate Mr. Morris's prevaricating. Some even placed the blame for the lying on Mr. Reagan himself. According to those reality-twisters, the former president was so dull that an unembellished account would have held no one's interest. So Mr. Morris was compelled to invent three fictional characters who throughout the book speak and act as if they were part of the historical record. But they weren't-and until he was forced to admit it, Mr. Morris never let his readers in on his supposedly clever little device. Never mind, say dozens of those who have sampled the bizarre approach: In The New York Times, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt says: "[A]s you read on-and such is the force and fascination of Morris's narrative that you can't help reading on-you begin to see the benefits of his highly unorthodox technique, which turns out to be a conjoining of invention and reality." Hillel Italie of The Associated Press defends Mr. Morris by reminding us that we've always been fed tall tales about presidents, ranging from the story about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree to Carl Sandburg's "romanticized biography" of Abraham Lincoln. In The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Michael Skube wrote: "The narrative risks that Morris undertook are large, and some would say foolhardy. But the panache with which he has brought Dutch off is breathtaking." Trying to have it both ways, Richard Cohen equivocated in The Washington Post: "Frankly, I wish Morris had not blended fiction with fact.... But he has nonetheless written a compulsively readable book-and one that strikes me as fundamentally true and fair." In other words: Lie on! Lying in the service of truth has become a societal watchword. If you have to fib to convey some great value, go ahead and concoct a good-sounding story. Janet Cooke was fired early in the 1990s for doing that in a Pulitzer Prize-winning story for The Washington Post-but it was mostly because she got caught and because what she did was so blatant. Falsehood dressed up like fact is commonplace in the media these days. We're not talking here, mind you, about mere bias-but about flat-out lying. The Media Research Center of Washington monitors both kinds of departure from the truth. I asked them for their favorite examples from the "falsehood" variety, just to prove my point that such is commonplace. Here, from recent years, is MRC's list:

  • NBC, on its Dateline program, rigged crashes of GM pickup trucks to get an explosion on camera.
  • ABC News used fake resumés to get jobs at Food Lion, and then attempted to make sure tainted or dated meat was available for sale.
  • ABC also spiked a report that its parent company-Disney-carelessly employs Peeping Toms and child molesters for its amusement parks. Even against that background, the big networks go right on posturing in public as if they owned the moral high ground, arrogantly scolding politicians, corporations, and others. But don't miss the point. It isn't that such lying goes on, and blatantly. The point is that we not only seem not to care, but actually prefer to have things that way. We give majority votes to those who lie through their teeth. We are a culture of cheerleaders for sham, pretense, and guile. And we deserve whatever it is that deliberately gullible people get.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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