In the McCarthy Era, newspapers had a problem. They tried hard, as we might say in modern parlance, to be “fair and balanced.” But, in trying to do so, they actually made things worse.
Senator Joseph McCarthy would accuse various Americans of being Communists and Soviet spies. Newspapers would then print, “McCarthy Says Owen Lattimore is a Spy” alongside another column reading “Lattimore Denies He’s a Spy.” But the newspapers had no evidence Lattimore was a spy. And neither did McCarthy. The public thus thought there was a legitimate debate brewing when in fact the matter, based on hard evidence, was not even contradicted. Lattimore was never a spy. And the newspapers should never have printed these libelous accusations without any evidence to back them up.
[Today’s media] might well allow one scientist
who agrees with climate change to debate one who does not.
But that debate is actually not a fair representation of the truth.
We see the same faux-debates being made today between the more than 97% of climatologists who believe climate change is real and human-made versus the less than 3% – many financed by carbon-polluting industries – who deny basic scientific fact. That’s more than 32 to 1! In today’s media, “exploring the controversy” might well allow one scientist who agrees with climate change to debate one who does not. But that debate is actually not a fair representation of the truth. The only fair way to express actual scientific authority in 2017 would be to have a debate between 32 scientists who state why climate change is real and human-made against the sole outlier who disagrees. If you’re going to have a debate on climate change, you might as well move on to debate round-earth vs. flat-earth or evolution vs. creationism. Creationism and flat-earthism, like climate-change denial, all have about the same degree of scientific consensus: namely, virtually no scientific support.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’d get an intellectual kick out of arguing for a flat earth. And in full disclosure, as a Sixth Grader, I played with relish the William Jennings Bryan preacher character in Inherit the Wind, a play about the Scopes Monkey Trial. I still remember my answer as to what time the Earth began: “9 AM!”, I shouted.
But a good reporter’s role is not to play devil’s advocate. (Please pardon the phrase, WJ Bryan, who is most assuredly rolling around in his grave to be compared to the devil.) The goal of the journalist must always be to find and print the truth, with no favor to friendship or fear of power. The New York Times, for more than a century, has proclaimed it provides: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
A good reporter’s role is not to play devil’s advocate.
[It] must always be to find and print the truth,
with no favor to friendship or fear of power.
The trouble is, some things aren’t fit to print. And Category One for Unprintable is what we might call, for lack of a better term, “fake news.” False accusations, bad science, and really any assertions without evidence are “fake news.” And it’s better not to even dignify “fake news” in print. Printing false or unfounded information lends it a dignity it does not deserve. Devoting the same column inches to “round earth” and “flat earth” confuses those who do not know the truth or who might have difficulty weighing scientific evidence, particularly if they aren’t experts in the field. And when false accusations are made about people, the end result is worse than confusion: it’s McCarthyism.
I miss Walter Cronkite. In the 1970’s, when Cronkite said “That’s the way it is,” you knew that’s the way it was. You might have an opinion about such and such fact. But you’d never deny the fact existed. Cronkite said it, and it was so. You could take that to the bank. “Everyone,” Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan liked to say, “is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Today, we have a bewildering array of so-called news sources. Our internet browsers place the Washington Post and the New York Times on an equal playing field with Russian propaganda, Breitbart, Alex Jones, and all sorts of fake news. It is up to us to determine “the way it is,” and sometimes we’re not that good at it. When the President tweets things he knows to be untrue, it gets even more difficult to tell fact from fiction.
Our surrender of logical thought
is the most powerful mechanism by which great evil
can transform ordinary human beings from men into monsters.
We listen only to those who agree with us and watch only the television channels that already comport with our views. Even Google confirms our prejudices by giving us only the news we want to hear and can emotionally accept. We live in our silos, accepting only what we believe to be true and what we want to be true. Our rational logical brain capitulates to the emotions of our amygdala.
In fact, our surrender of logical thought is the most powerful mechanism by which great evil can transform ordinary human beings from men into monsters. Adolf Hitler apparently thought this manipulation so easy to do that he bragged about the process in Mein Kampf eight years before coming to power:
in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods.
It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying.
Hannah Arendt taught us that fascists don’t lie to obscure the truth; they lie to signal what would eventually become “truth”. You repeat a lie often enough, and it becomes true to you. No wonder the dictator in George Orwell’s 1984 made his subjects repeat the mantra:
WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
We must unapologetically expose attempts
to propagate the Big Lie as rank evil.
If all of this appears bleak, the wrong choice is to hide under the covers. We can still take comfort in the fact that, despite the power of McCarthyism and the Big Lie, we have managed to retain freedom of thought in the United States for more than 240 years, sustained no doubt by a free, unfettered, and aggressive Fourth Estate.
But that’s only because enough of us have remained vigilant. We citizens have a role as well. We must police the press just as thoroughly as the press polices our Government. If lies are printed, we must call them out. If innuendo is spread, we must catch it and turn it on its head. We must even, for the sake of truth, ostracize friends and family who repeat clear untruths and refuse to retract them. We must unapologetically expose attempts to propagate the Big Lie as rank evil. Yet, at the same time, we have to remain open to the possibility that we ourselves may be wrong.
How do we know what’s right and wrong? Ask the panicked
SCUBA diver who goes deep down into the ocean…
If she keeps her wits about her, she need simply
follow her air bubbles to the surface.
But, in the fog of the Big Lie, how do we know what’s right and wrong? Ask the panicked SCUBA diver who goes deep down into the ocean, far away from the sunlight, and cannot remember which way is up. If she keeps her wits about her, she need simply follow her air bubbles to the surface. They will always float up. Logic must trump emotion, and sometimes that requires a dramatic force of will and self-discipline.
At the end of the day, the defense of truth is up to us. It’s our job, the job of We the People.
Or, as Benjamin Franklin might say: it is our Republic, if we can keep it.
 “Arctic Sea Ice Coverage Hits Record Low”. Images of Change. #623. https://climate.nasa.gov/images-of-change?id=623#623-arctic-sea-ice-coverage-hits-record-low
NOTE: In this piece, Levine lays out the danger of false equivalence both in the era of McCarthy and today, and makes a clarion call for citizens to resist untruth in the media. This universal civic responsibility mirrors a long-standing tradition of religious leaders of all faiths organizing in resistance when politicians lie. For some Christian resistance to McCarthyism, read this letter from the Presbyterian General Assemby in 1953.
AUTHOR BIO: Mark Levine, a Member of the Virginia House of Delegates and a former Congressional attorney, has been a citizen activist for decades. Levine’s work sits at the intersection of activism, policy, journalism, and politics, and he frequently speaks to the moral imperative of citizens to be engaged in their society. A radio talk show host since 2003 and a television pundit since 2009, you can catch Mark Levine on 43 radio stations nationwide and on his website MarkLevineTalk.com.