Opinion Politics

Cash & Candor: Does Truth Matter?

In Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics / AY Magazine Editor Caleb Talley aims to shoot it straight when it comes to business and politics in and around the Natural State. Talley comes to AMP by way of the Arkansas Delta, where he spent the last two years calling balls and strikes at the Forrest City Times-Herald. Read more Cash & Candor here.

The Oxford English Dictionary word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth.” Their definition of the adjective is to relate or denote circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. In other words, it means the truth ain’t worth jack unless it makes you feel good.

To be nominated as word of the year, a word must have either just been coined (as was the case with words like “selfie” and “vape” a few years back) or have become increasingly prominent within that time frame. For post-truth, it is the latter. And unfortunately, its prominence in our society continues to spread like a plague that corrupts everything it touches.

In short, we live in a post-truth world. Never has the truth been less important. It’s evident in our interactions with one another – the hyperboles we’re guilty of engaging in and the way we share information online.

But the aspect of life most negatively affected by this post-truth phenomenon is our political discourse. It has become evident that for many, the objective truth is not independent from opinion. Facts are, apparently, relative. And as a result, it’s damn near impossible to have a constructive, bipartisan dialogue.

How can two people find middle ground when they’re operating with two sets of truths? They can’t; it’s practically impossible. And it’s far too easy to derail a constructive discussion about important issues by injecting, as Kellyanne Conway might call them, “alternative facts.” It’s far too easy to poison the well of information.

And it only takes a single lie.

A single untruth, if exciting enough and introduced by the right person, is all it takes to reinforce a flawed belief that would have otherwise been rightly repudiated. Too often, a lie will sprout roots deep into the partisan ethos. And once they’ve become ingrained in the political conversation, it’s almost impossible to weed them out.

But let’s be clear: this isn’t a brand-new phenomenon. There’s an entire industry predicated by the power of a good lie.

As more and more credible, scientific information was being distributed about the harmful effects of smoking, the big tobacco barons of the 1950s hired some of the most influential PR professionals to help them fight back. How? By lying. They simply told the public that tobacco wasn’t injurious to health, and they formed a committee of phony scientists to pretend to agree.

In the 1990s, the political right latched on to a fabrication crafted by infamous liar Betsy McCaughey. In an article for The New Republic, McCaughey popularized the (false) notion of “death panels,” in order to kill the Clinton healthcare bill. The article was full of verifiable untruths, and they spread like wildfire.

And even though her claims were debunked – The New Republic even apologized for the article – they were still woven into the fabric of conservative talking points. McCaughey’s lies had sprouted roots, and they weren’t going anywhere. They both resurged in 2009, to try and undermine the passage of Obamacare.

On a radio show with Fred Thompson, McCaughey told listeners that the bill included a section that encouraged seniors to end their lives early. Michelle Bachmann repeats the line on the floor of the House. Sarah Palin hears it and revives the term “death panels.” And today, years after McCaughey’s claim was again proven to be a flat-out lie, plenty of people still believe it.

According to a survey conducted in 2016, 60 percent of Americans either believe death panels exist or are unsure. Even more surprising is that 51 percent of Democrats either think they exist or are unsure. Nearly 75 percent of Republicans surveyed believe Obamacare established death panels.

Now that’s a lie with some deep roots.

The state of play is getting worse, not better. And blame isn’t exclusive to just one political party, either.

Just look, for example, at the hysteria surrounding Michael Wolff’s book “Fire & Fury,” released earlier this month. Wolff and his publisher began releasing excerpts from the book early, purporting President Trump’s mental instability – and quite convincingly, I might add.

Democrats and other critics of the president took these accusations and ran with them because they seemed to confirm what they had already believed: Trump is unfit to be president. It wasn’t until the book was actually released that we found out that many of the accounts detailed in Wolff’s book may not have been credible. Wolff even admitted that some were likely false, but suggested it didn’t matter. As long as it confirmed what he and many others already thought about Trump, the job was done. The readers could sort it out for themselves, he said.

Last week, after we learned Trump used some “tough” language to describe his disdain for people coming from predominantly brown countries, our own Sen. Tom Cotton told reporters that it didn’t happen. Despite confirmation from a bipartisan group of witnesses that Trump did say what we all know he said, Cotton continued to flatly deny it to the general public.

As a result, faithful Trump apologists, who would have otherwise completely ignored the incident to avoid getting egg on their face, took up the senator’s lie. Didn’t happen. Cotton poisoned the well, giving those who didn’t want to believe the reports reason not to.

How do we hold our leaders, and those who drive our political conversations, accountable for their lies with the type of example set by the man who’s in charge of it all? No one has poisoned the well of information quite like President Trump.

As of last week, he was up to 2,000 officially verified lies while in office. I’m serious. At 5.5 lies a day, President Stable Genius is on pace to reach 8,000 whoppers by the end of his first term – an appalling milestone for anyone, much less the leader of the free world. He considers himself the best at everything; this may be the one category where he actually is.

How do we even come back from that? Does the truth really not matter?

The truth does matter. And it’s critical we seek and embrace it, now more than ever, regardless of whether it means you’re wrong. Grow up. We’ve created a culture where a lie serves as strategic benefit to those grasping at power, and it’s time we put an end to it.

This week, out-going Sen. Jeff Flake, gave a speech on the floor of the Senate, condemning Trump’s incessant lies and attacks on the media:

“Between the mighty and the modest, truth is the great leveler.”

If we compromise truth for the sake of politics or personal opinion, we’re lost. C’mon folks. We can do better.

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