Lies are complex things
I have a standard reply when somebody teases me about being a BSer.
“Hey,” I reply, in mock outrage, “truth is my business.”
Yeah, not even Karon buys it.
Seriously, though, at the end of the day, that’s the basic requirement of my job: To pursue truth. It sounds pretentious, but think about it: If a reporter isn’t at least trying to get at the truth of something, you’re not reading news. You’re reading either fiction or at least some very inept reporting.
Truth has always been a big deal for me, and for that I credit my Dad.
It always raises my hackles a bit when people say something about salesmen always being liars. My Dad worked in sales all this life, and he also was the most honest, honorable man I’ve ever known.
As with a lot of people, my Dad’s honesty was a direct reaction to his childhood. His father was the town drunk of Ironwood, Michigan, and from what I’ve been told was pretty much a waste of human flesh. I don’t remember him much, but I’ve heard the stories. He cheated on my grandmother, whom my Dad worshiped (she died 10 years before I was born). He stole money from my Dad. And those were just the things I’ve heard about. I’m sure there’s much more.
Like a lot of children of alcoholics, my Dad’s motivating force was to not be his Dad. He actually went the other way, becoming a workaholic (which is, in some ways, just as harmful, but that’s a story for another time). But he lived his life, and insisted that his children live theirs, with honesty as a paramount virtue.
I’m sure that often was hard on my Dad, but it was no walk in the park for us, either.
I had a factory job during a couple of summers that I hated. Hated, hated, hated. The money was great, but I used to get physically nauseous at the thought of going into work.
A friend had an internship at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, one of the premier theaters in the entire country. She once invited me to an opening night and the party afterwards, which would have been filled with the city’s best and brightest. But I had to work that factory job, and as much as I begged, Dad would not let me call in sick. It was the longest night I’ve ever spent at work.
A certain amount of lying is necessary in life, if only to prevent bigger problems. Sometimes it’s even a matter of kindness to tell somebody a little fib. It’s one of the lubricants that keep the wheels of society turning. The trick is to know the size of the lie, and not do it too frequently.
Of course, given the person in the oval office, who has set never-to-be-broken records in prevarication, lying is a big topic of conversation these days. Trump’s defenders don’t even bother to answer the criticism that he lies, other than to shout “fake news,” which is less an argument than a verbal tic.
Not that this is a defense, but one thing you have to realize is that Trump’s previous career was partially based on lies. While he’s thought of as a real estate developer, his real job was to find investors for his projects. Because those projects were pretty much just ideas when he sought those investors, he had to sell the sizzle rather than the steak. The steak didn’t even exist yet.
As I said, that’s not an excuse for either the level or kinds of lies he’s known for, but it certainly explains them. He got money by promising people things that couldn’t be disproved, which removes a lot of the incentive to be truthful.
Given that he’s the most visible person in the world, he simply can’t get away with what he did as a private businessman. Virtually his every word is on video somewhere, so he’s reduced to telling people not to believe what they’ve actually seen.
Maybe I’m more sensitive to lies because of my profession. People lie to me all the time. I like to think I’ve developed a pretty good BS detector over the years, and it’s only when I’ve ignored the little bell that goes off in the back of my head that it hasn’t worked. I’ve gotten to the point where I can almost tell from a person’s tone of voice if they’re telling the truth. One of my proudest professional moments was when I kept my paper from getting hoaxed based pretty much on the tone of a caller’s voice, plus a few statements that somehow seemed just slightly off. Sometimes, for a reporter, it’s the things you don’t do that are among your biggest wins.
It also makes it doubly distressing when somebody in my business gets caught lying. I understand how it happens; every reporter has chased a story that turns out to not be true, but really sounded like it should be. A good working knowledge of urban legends has kept me away from many a snipe hunt.
I know a lot of folks don’t believe it, but lying about or in a story really is the professional kiss of death. Once or twice every decade, some high-profile reporter turns out to be a fabulist. They usually try to redeem themselves a few years later, but it almost never works. Journalists remember their names and what they did.
A reporter who lies is bad enough, but they also make more difficult the jobs of the vast majority of honest reporters. It adds one more layer to fight through when you’re looking for the truth.
That’s really more basic than you might think. Every real story, even the wildest, most poorly reported ones, has at least a truth in it somewhere. In fact, I always told my students not to seek the truth, but to seek a truth. If you think you’re always reporting The Truth, it’s an invitation for your ego to get in the way. Better to be humble.
Actually, lying in a story is less common than simple ineptitude. The old professional saying is that doctors bury their mistakes, lawyers visit their in jail and reporters print theirs on the front page for the world to see.
In other words: Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by simple ineptitude.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org