Outrages & Insights / When truth is the enemy
Jim Heaney is editor of Investigative Post, a nonprofit investigative reporting center based in Buffalo.
I recently attended speeches given by two of America’s pre-eminent journalists—Bob Woodward and Bill Moyers—and was struck by what they had to say about the demise of truth.
Their comments, in the context of Donald Trump’s presidency, left me thinking that the worst legacy of the president’s toxic, ruinous rule is the effect it is having on our democracy. That is, our growing inability to make decisions based on a commonly accepted set of facts.
Woodward said Trump has “destroyed the common agreement about what is fact.” Moyers concurs: “It is troubling that there is now an alternative universe that is untrue, has no regard for the facts, that is based upon lies.” The two talks—Woodward’s in Jamestown at the invitation of the Robert H. Jackson Center and Moyers at the Chautauqua Institution—left me more concerned than ever about the plight of our democracy.
There’s lots of talk about the growing political polarization, but an inability to agree on even basic facts is one of the roots of the problem. And that disagreement is by design; the byproduct of efforts by right-wing authoritarians—epitomized by Trump and the more than 12,000 lies and misleading claims he’s made since taking office—who see political profit to be gained from chaos that results from the unraveling of democratic norms. That starts with the erosion of truth, facts, and the informed discourse that rely on them.
Many place the blame at the feet of social media, but these outlets are just the means by which lies and confusion are transmitted. The root of the problem is a lack of ethics and reactionary ideologies. The white patriarchy is beginning to crumble, and it’s not going down without a fight.
“Most of this [misleading] content is designed not to persuade people in any particular direction, but to cause confusion, to overwhelm and to undermine trust in democratic institutions from the electoral system to journalism,” writes Claire Wardle, an expert in disinformation, in a recent edition of Scientific American.
Woodward, in his remarks, reflected on the lessons of Watergate in the context of the Trump presidency. He is, along with Carl Bernstein, best known for breaking the Watergate scandal. He’s also authored best-selling books on every president since Richard Nixon. In his talk, which focused on the value of truth and moral authority, Woodward didn’t try to mask his contempt for Trump. The talk was based on his reporting for his latest best seller, Fear, which chronicled the first year or so of Trump’s presidency.
Trump, said Woodward, “has legitimized hate and violence” and has no regard for the rule of law in making decisions. “I don’t think it comes up.” “Trump has no ‘to do’ list,” he added. “It’s all spontaneous reaction.” Woodward offered his description of what makes for a good president: a leader with good ideas and an ability to surround himself with talented people. The objective of this team, he said, is to stay out of wars and work for the common good, or as he put it, strive for the “next stage of good for the majority of the American people.”
Woodward found some fault with press coverage of the president while generally praising the work of news organizations. “A lot of reporters have become emotionally unhinged by Trump,” he said. “It’s essential that we be in the middle.”
Moyers, best known for his work with PBS and CBS, was less direct in his criticism of Trump in his Chautauqua remarks, although his unease with the president is well established. Trump, he said, is a symptom of a larger problem: “Now it seems lying is not only accepted, but honored.”
The stakes for democracy are high, he said, and require citizens taking care to consume reliable media. Moyers final warning: “Be careful of what you subscribe to, be careful of what you read.”