In my blog post a few days ago about “Real Patriotism,” I referred parenthetically to the almost 1500 migrant children the Trump administration had “inexplicably lost.” I thought I had fact-checked it, but I discovered later that my original statement was over-generalized and did not account appropriately for the nuances of the situation. So I deleted the statement and I will not repeat it unless I put it in context, including the fact that previous administrations have also lost track of migrant children, sometimes for understandable reasons and sometimes not. (For the record, my confession to writing something that was not the whole story in no way absolves this administration of its anti-immigrant rhetoric and practices, which are cruel and xenophobic.)
Now more than ever, truth matters. The president utters multiple falsehoods and distortions of the truth in a single tweet, and in rallies repeats them to great applause. In an off-camera comment to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl before his inauguration, he admitted he berates the media to “discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you” (as paraphrased by Stahl). In a recent tweet, he specifically equated negative news about him with “fake news.” As far as he’s concerned, if a story portrays him positively, it’s true; if it’s negative, it’s fake news. According to a Monmouth University poll a couple months ago, 77 percent of those surveyed said that the news media report “fake” stories. Clearly, the president’s gaslighting strategy is working and it’s definitely crazy-making!
Long before the idea of “fake news” became part of everyday life, I would check snopes.com to find out if something was true or false – usually one of those so-called urban legends such as a recent one that Meghan Markle’s rescue dog accompanied Queen Elizabeth to the royal wedding (it didn’t!). I trust Snopes to sort out truth from falsehood. Sometimes when Facebook friends, who as far as I know are truthful people in everyday life, share flatly false (and easily fact-checked) stories, I will post a link to the truth. But then someone might respond that snopes.com, or whatever fact-checking source I referenced, is “liberal” and can’t be trusted. Never mind that snopes.com and the other two I follow – factchecking.org and politifact.com – are deliberately non-partisan, regularly point out falsehoods from all points on the political spectrum, and provide helpful context. It never entered my mind before the current nightmare of falsehoods that there is a liberal or conservative explanation for what is true or false.
When my go-to fact-checking sources rate something as true or false, or somewhere in between (e.g., mostly true, mostly false), I believe them, even when their assessment does not confirm my biases. When their rating calls out someone I respect for speaking falsely, I am always disappointed that he or she did not tell the truth. Besides factcheck.org and politifact.com, I also generally trust the fact-checkers at NPR and at the New York Times and Washington Post, all of whom have decades-old reputations to uphold. I am old enough to remember the role that these newspapers played in exposing not only the truth about how the American people were being misled about the Vietnam War but also the truth about Watergate. In the recent example of the “lost children,” both newspapers published important explanations with the larger context of what is happening now with children at the border and what happened in previous years.
We all need to commit ourselves to tell the truth and not pass on information as fact just because it suits our biases (which I regret I did with the “lost children” story). A society cannot function when we can’t count on people to tell the truth – and when lies, dishonesty, misinformation, distortion, obfuscation, dissembling (choose your favorite word) are commonplace at the highest levels of American life, including the presidency. Everyone who has been lied to knows how difficult it is to trust the person again. Are they lying again, or is this the truth now? Relationships are damaged, sometimes irreparably, when the parties can’t trust each other to tell the truth. This is happening right now on a national scale, and I believe the damage could be long-lasting.
I’ve written before about the importance of truth. In Truth Matters, in January 2017, I wrote: “I feel like I can’t function in a world where facts aren’t facts, where you can just make up stuff and present it as true and real, dismiss a story based on facts that don’t suit your particular bias by calling it ‘fake news,’ or demean and dismiss journalists and newspapers that have dedicated themselves for decades to telling the truth. . . . If nothing is really true anymore, if there are no such things as facts, how can we have any sense of being one nation?” I ended with some coping strategies I’m still trying to follow, and noted that the assault on truth feels like an existential threat, not only to my own sanity but also to the well-being of the nation.
I still feel that way. Truth matters now more than ever.