We may be jaded and we may be cynical but the sad reality is that we don’t expect that our political leaders are going to tell the truth. “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.” “Read my lips, no new taxes.” “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” “I am not a crook.” It’s sad, but whether they’re telling us about hidden weapons caches, college transcripts, or allegedly-hacked Twitter accounts, at least half of us automatically won’t believe politicians (Democrats if a Republican says something, Republicans if a Democrat says it). The logical result is that at least half the country is automatically unsurprised should a statement actually turn out to be false.
Our standards for news reporting are also pretty low in that we’ve come to expect bias. CNN is Liberal. Fox is Conservative. Depending on where one stands politically, everything that’s said on the wrong network is automatically assumed to be, if not a lie, then presented through heavy filters.
We saw this a few months ago, when a terrorist used his vehicle as a weapon to kill civilians at a Jerusalem train station and the assailant was killed by police. The AP’s initial headline read “Israeli Police Shoot Man in East Jerusalem.” Yeah… technically, that’s true, but it’s not focusing on the real news. (In the news business, this is called “burying the lede.”) So, after some complaints from the public, the headline was changed to “Car slams into east Jerusalem train station.” Better, but not quite there, yet. After more complaints, the final headline was “Palestinian kills baby at Jerusalem station.” We finally got there, and all it took was several thousand irate online posts.
As reprehensible as we may find coloring the news like this, we roll our eyes and sigh, fully aware that that’s just the way things are. We expect it and we accept it – unless someone overtly lies. That’s where we draw the line. You can spin the facts any way you like, so long as they’re the facts. (As Senator Daniel P. Moynihan famously put it, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.) Once someone crosses that line, public reaction is swift and harsh.
This is why we are outraged by the indiscretion of NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. For 12 years, Williams has maintained that a helicopter in which he was a passenger in Iraq was shot down. Apparently, he confused his helicopter – which, it should be noted, had been hit by some enemy fire – with the copter in front of him, which was downed. (It was in front of him by as much as an hour, though reports vary.)
Now, admittedly, this is a story that affects absolutely none of us. Its purpose was mere self- aggrandizement, like exaggerating the size of a fish. (A flying fish that was shot down in Iraq, but a fish nonetheless.) The problem is, once we know he’s a liar, how can we trust him?
Williams is in good company. I’ll share one prominent example each from the past few decades:
- The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for “Jimmy’s World,” a 1980 story about an eight-year-old heroin addict. The story received national attention and the scrutiny eventually pressured Cooke into revealing that it was a hoax;
- In 1992, Dateline NBC aired a report about pick-up trucks that explode upon impact. It was later discovered that footage of trucks exploding in crash tests was staged by producers, who caused the explosions by remote control;
- In 2003, Jayson Blair of The New York Times was charged with plagiarism and with fabricating news. Among his misdeeds, Blair purported to have traveled to various cities to cover stories when he had never actually done so, and he attributed quotes to people who were not present;
- Recently, I decried the practice of certain ultra-Orthodox newspapers to airbrush women out of news photos.
So, it turns out that the truth is actually pretty important to us as a nation. This is likewise a Jewish ethic. Many mitzvos in the Torah revolve around the necessity to adhere to the truth. Among these:
- Exodus 20:12 – Not to bear false witness;
- Leviticus 19:15 – Not to favor the mighty in judgment (because of their position);
- Exodus 23:3 – Not to favor the lowly in judgment (out of mercy);
- Deuteronomy 25:13 – Not even to own inaccurate weights and measures.
The Torah’s overarching statement on the matter is Exodus 23:7: keep far away from a false matter.
Truth is so important to G-d because, in a sense, G-d is truth. The prophet Jeremiah tells us, “Hashem G- d is true” (Jer. 10:10), a sentiment we echo twice daily by appending the word “emes” (true) to the end of Shema. The Talmud echoes this sentiment by telling us that G-d’s metaphorical seal is truth (Shabbos 55a and Sanhedrin 64a). Rabbinic literature is replete with dicta underscoring the importance of truth.
So, yes, fish tale or not, we are justified in losing faith in Brian Williams. In an industry that should value the truth above all else, he revealed a willingness to corrupt that standard. (That’s not to say that he should never work in media again; he’s just going to have to work harder to regain the public’s trust.)
The problem is not the speed with which we excoriate the Janet Cookes and Jayson Blairs, it’s the passivity with we assume that politicians will lie and that the news will spin the facts. Our representatives are just as responsible to tell the truth as those in the media, while those in the media have a responsibility to present the facts without bias. Remember, the Torah doesn’t tell us not to lie, it tells us to keep far away from falsehood. This is truth to a much greater degree. “Israeli Police Shoot Man in East Jerusalem” may not be a lie in word, but it is very much a false matter in spirit!
This is the standard to which we should hold our elected officials. This is the standard to which we should hold our reporters and news anchors. Most importantly, this is the standard to which we must hold ourselves.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.