The Death of Truth

August 27, 2016

My first real exposure to people not wanting the truth, but only hearing what they want to hear, happened  25 years ago. My friend Deb Amos, NPR’s well-known and extremely talented Middle East reporter, had been invited to speak to an elderly Jewish group in Boston about her experiences in Israel and Palestine.

I tagged along for the trip and sat in a corner as Deb painstakingly gave both sides of the issues. Her talk presented a complex situation, with no easy solution and in which both sides were often guilty of not taking the measures needed for peace to flourish. It was a fascinating presentation.

Then an interesting thing happened. One by one, these elderly Jewish Bostonians asked Deb questions that included statements directly opposite to what she had said. It was as if they hadn’t heard her talk at all. Deb went back over much of her material to clarify matters, but many really weren’t interested in hearing. It became clear that what they really wanted was her confirmation not of the truth, but of what they believed.

Karyn Karnheim, formerly of the American Enterprise Institute, has written about how people consume news. What reporters don’t realize, she said, is that people filter the news through their biases and beliefs. It’s called confirmation bias. (I think this may be why giving people facts about an issue like climate change reinforces their belief there is no such thing.)

In this post-modern world (and I confess I’m a bit of a post-modernist), with its plethora of news sources trumpeting a particular angle, you don’t have to be confronted with reality. You can go to and get the alt-right lowdown on Mexican rapists or the danger of transgender bathrooms, confirming all your own biased views on those subjects. Or head over to Media Matters to find out why the Clintons’ problems with email are an invention of the far-right. Nothing to see here, move along folks.

True, there are great fact-checking sites, like PolitiFacts or the Washington Post’s fact-checking operation which awards up to four Pinocchios, based on the truth of a statement. Fact-checkers were once considered so important, but I feel they’re now like remainder bins at book stores. Few pay attention to the bins. Fact-checkers tell people what they don’t want to hear.

Which brings me to Donald Trump, and in particular his spokeswoman, Katrina Pierson.

Never has there been a presidential candidate who cares less about facts or the truth. Donald Trump can make a speech one night and then totally contradict himself the next day, and then when confronted with his flip-flop, ignore it or blame the media for trying to make him look bad. The classic example is his insistence that he opposed the Iraq war, when in fact he supported sending United States into Iraq. There are many written and recorded statements of him doing so. But his followers don’t care. They are not interested in facts – they’ve decided that the Donald can say what he likes and they will believe it, because he is saying what they believe, even if it’s not true.

The real practitioner of this art of ignoring reality, however, is Ms. Pierson, the ‘Baghdad Bob’ of the Trump campaign. Her appearance on media outlets has taken on a sort of Alice in Wonderland quality. You just know that you’re headed down the rabbit hole once she opens her mouth.

Perhaps her most egregious moment came when she said that President Barack Obama was responsible for sending in troops to Afghanistan in the early 2000s. Obama was, at the time, a state senator in Illinois, and not president. (Pierson’s comment was an obvious and bizarre attempt to tie Hillary Clinton to Obama.) When confronted with this outrageous and impossible inconsistency., Pierson ignored it and plowed on like a bull in a china shop (her usual method of doing interviews), only one example in a string of ridiculous statements.

But here’s the thing. Pierson’s statements are eaten up by Trump supporters. They are carried endlessly on Fox ‘News’, which has been a cable news outlet devoted to misinformation for years, and other far-right media outlets. The reason is simple. These partisans are not interested in “truth” unless it confirms what they already believe about Obama and Clinton.

But some people see what’s happening. Charlie Sykes, a conservative talk radio host in Wisconsin, said an interesting thing. He pondered that perhaps people like himself had spent so long pounding the mainstream media as too liberal and biased, that when it tells the truth people no longer believe it. And that is what gave us Donald Trump, the fact-free candidate.

I think Sykes might be on to something. But it’s not just conservative media. If you have an opinion on something, no matter how strange or wrong, you can find someone in this digital-dominated world who will tell you that you’re right.

This is not going to change anytime soon and will get worse.

Copyright Tom Regan 2016

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Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

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