Truth, Fact, Fiction or Propaganda: Who Can We Believe in this Era of Incivility?

"Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts." - Detective Joe Friday in Dragnet

A religious leader once told me that after Eve ate the apple, banishing mankind from the Garden of Eden and bringing about free-will, human definitions about "good and bad" became "right and wrong." The difference, he said, was that while good and bad were divinely-guided judgments, right and wrong were laced with subjectivity, jealousy and prejudice. Truth became malleable and an interpretation in the eye of the beholder.

We have seen the ultimate malleability of truth in totalitarian regimes where the media is attacked, curbed or manipulated: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Syria, Rwanda, Somalia and Nazi Germany are just a few examples where truth, fact and propaganda became one and the same.

Joe Friday, iconic detective of the 1950's and 60's hit TV show Dragnet, knew that to get to the truth, you had to start with verifiable facts. The role of the detective was to sift fact from fiction, acknowledging that some facts are truths while other "facts" are falsehoods. The criminals in Dragnet presented false scenarios as fact -- so, too, did many a skillful attorney -- in an effort to avoid incarceration. True legal justice ideally wove solid facts through the tapestry of police and courts -- to come up with just and fair verdicts.

My new-found friend Monty found out the hard way that justice is not always served, and truth isn't always truth. He spent 23 years behind bars for killing his wife in what he claimed was an accidental shooting (his wife was playing with the gun). He was defended by a great lawyer and claimed innocence all along but was released from prison 23 years later after "the truth" was uncovered: a prosecutor had buried evidence from hospital records that documented how, prior to her death, his wife verified Monty's story. So much for truth. If you're white, your story may be believed; if you're black, truth often takes on a different spin.

We find out over and over again in America that "truth" is not truth and that there is a world of "alternative facts" and prejudiced, sometimes self-serving, cruel realities. This is one of the subliminal cultural backdrops that has created an America where people are skeptical of others' truthfulness. In the courts, on TV, in sports, in politics and in the news media itself, popular perception is that everyone has an angle and many people are lying. The American people are the detectives, sifting through the facts to find the truth. But when truth is not genuinely given, interpretation -- sometimes faulty -- becomes our default. We tend to believe our groups of like-minded people (or political parties) even when they're sometimes lying. Interpretation turns into judgment -- of course, the "other" group that's not like-minded lies all the time!

Lying is nothing new in our dysfunctional political realm. "Facts" as they are presented and often spun are not necessary facts nor truths. Nixon's Watergate, George W. Bush's "read my lips" about no tax increases, Bill Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," George W. Bush's "weapons of mass destruction," Hillary Clinton's emails, the DNC's sabotage of Bernie Sanders' candidacy and Donald Trump's allegations about voter fraud, intelligence leaks and inauguration turnout show how politicos across the aisle have lied.

And then there's the role of media.

I don't believe, as presidential senior strategist Steve Bannon recently said, that "the media ... should keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while." Criticism is often hard to take, but that's our free country. Nor do I agree with him that the "media is the political opposition." The media is an important, albeit flawed, check and balance to a political system, candidates and even presidents that desperately need to be fact-checked. Responsible media protects our democracy and calls into question its lapses and failures. Self-serving media goes for the scoop, the story, the sensation and the sound bites that deliver money, clicks, subscribers and advertisers. A democracy has both the responsible and the self-serving in all walks of life.

In my opinion, for responsible media to help improve our democracy and the truthfulness of our politics, it has to report not just fact, but truth. I've written before about media's bias in reporting only bad news and not presenting a balanced picture, resorting instead to "gotcha" stories and juicy sound bites. For at least a generation, local TV news has been guided by the mantra, "If it bleeds, it leads," and sensationalism has defined what is self-designated as "news." This not only adds to skepticism about media but exacerbates the perception by many Americans that nobody is truthful.

A high school principal, whose students had planned a massive community do-good day, once complained to me that he couldn't get the media to report on the good news, but had there been a school shooting, the media surely would have been out in droves.

This mode of reporting is the precursor to the media's 14 percent approval ratings as well as the Trump administration's over-the-top push-back and hostility. The drive to publish and broadcast leaked and unsubstantiated, albeit titillating, reports about smut that the Russians maybe had on possible or fictitious Trump affairs may have been tempting to report, but was wrong and irresponsible; not fact, nor truth; not news.

I raised the issue of media's responsibility at The Purple Tent, the civility destination that Purple America/Values-in-Action Foundation sponsored at the RNC Convention. One of the panels focused on media and polling. Kellyanne Conway, Kevin Cirilli (Bloomberg), Daniel Lippman (Politico), among other prominent leaders, were on the panel. In my question, I referred to media icon Scripps-Howard's motto since 1922, "Give light and the people will find their own way," and I asked if it's media's responsibility to present light and truth that will guide Americans to making informed and sound decisions.

To my chagrin, people on the panel asserted that it's not media's responsibility to fairly report the news but, rather, the American people's responsibility to digest multiple media sources to determine the truth. I encountered an identical cop-out three years ago when asking a similar question of David Gregory when he was moderator of Meet the Press. Presenting the truth, he said, was not media's role.

So Americans are left to decide: is the story fact, fake, spin, opinion or propaganda? In this sordid state of affairs, truth, democracy and an engaged citizenry are the victims.

While presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway was giving her now-viral "alternative facts" interview to Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, perhaps metaphorically, two squirrels were chasing each other up a tree, caught on camera in the background on the White House lawn. Maybe they represented Politics vs. Media, running circles around the truth.

President Trump promised to "drain the swamp" and bring Washington back to the people. For that to happen, "We the People" need facts, not fiction. If lying and manipulation take over and media does not return to the practices of Morrow, Sevareid, Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley -- that they indeed are purveyors of "the light" -- our country may devolve into small-minded squirrels chasing their tails, scampering up the proverbial tree. President Donald J. Trump can lead the charge in either direction: toward truth, justice and the American way or irresponsibility, incivility and chaos.

Gloria Steinem's adaptation of John:23 is very appropriate for our country, our media and our president right now: "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off."

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialogue around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us. Project Love is a school-based character-development program of Values-in-Action Foundation. To see information about Project Love school programming, go to www.projectlove.org

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