Veteran TV journalist Bill Moyers has returned from retirement to inaugurate a new season of Bill Moyers Journal, premiering on April 25th with a program entitled “Buying The War,” which examines the less than glorious role of the American press in the creation of the War in Iraq. After listening to Terry Gross interview Moyers on Fresh Air on Monday, I’m really looking forward to it.
Moyers repeats one point like a mantra: “I believe that we journalists are obligated to get people as close as possible to the verifiable truth.” The interview includes quite a bit of discussion of the networks’ practice of what has come to be called “balance,” which means presenting and treating as absolutely equal two opposing accounts of reality, with no attempt to verify either one. Moyers sensibly says that the media’s habit of “splitting the difference between two opinions does not get you to the truth; it gets you to another opinion.”
“The conclusions I reach,” Moyers says, “the analysis I make, are substantiated by the evidence I’ve collected. That’s what I mean by credibility and it’s what I mean by judgment. We make a judgment based upon the information. Our judgment has to be compared to the credibility of the information.” This once might have seemed to be stating the obvious, but Moyers’ story in “Buying The War” is about how administration officials manufactured information and journalists colluded with them to spread it without the merest regard for verifiability.
Listening to Moyers made me think a lot about how we got here, how the notion of truth has become so discredited, replaced by what comedian Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness,” a word so power-packed with Zeitgeist, the American Dialect Society voted it word of the year for 2005.
The last few decades have seen a great many attacks, from both right and left, on the notion of truth. From a populist perspective, it was necessary to dismantle the Great Man Theory of History, which propounded a definitive, top-down account of events, attributing their causes to heroic individuals, usually certified great men, and overlooking their effects on ordinary people. The idea was to create a thicker, more satisfying description of reality by layering multiple accounts, so that the share cropper’s view of agriculture stands side-by-side with the landowner’s, the working mother’s account of child-rearing coexists with that of the academic expert in early childhood.
To me, this change has been an excellent thing, immeasurably enriching our understanding of the past, indeed, of our own times. But it has also inadvertently lent credibility to a view framed differently in academia and corporate America, but equally current in both realms, that because there are multiple subjectivities, there is no verifiable truth.
President Bush has been aggressive in expressing this view without exactly stating it outright, as when he says over and over again that he ignores “the filters,” meaning accounts put forward by reporters and commentators, instead advancing as truth his own administration’s uncorroborated assertions. In doing so, Bush has contributed greatly to the pervasive idea that truth is entirely up for grabs, that even when it comes to essential questions of public policy and action, one story is as good as another.
But the consequences of preferring truthiness over truth are proving to be not much fun for the rest of us. Indeed, it seems they are teaching us that it is possible after all to distinguish truth from falsehood while still honoring multiple viewpoints. One indication of renewed interest in truth is that few high officials of the Bush administration have managed to escape investigation for some form of lying or other villainy in office. Even Fox’s poll numbers put the president’s disapproval ratings at nearly double his approvals. And now here’s another sign of life returning to our oxygen-starved brains: I like seeing Bill Moyers come back to PBS while Kenneth Tomlinson, the CPB Chair who tired to discredit Moyers, was forced out in disgrace.
I like to dream that the search for truth might even be making a comeback. In my dream, Verifiable Truth and Multiple Subjectivities walk arm in arm into a bar. Smiling companionably, they sit down together to toast detente, at last recognizing that things are better when they both live and let live.