Truth keeps getting harder to recognize these days. I am reminded of Antonioni’s film, Blow Up (1966), in which a photographer happens upon a possible murder in a London park, but his evidence is a negative he keeps enlarging only to find the figure on the grass gets blurrier and ultimately dissolves. The plot, loosely based on Julio Cortazar’s “The Devil’s Drool,” explores the nature of truth in the high-tech age. No matter how fine the tools, truth slips away. At the end of the film, the photographer, played by David Hemmings, retrieves an imaginary ball and gives it back to a mime group pretending to play tennis. Fantasy is no worse or better than the elusive truth.
All through the ensuing decades we have been told of the possibility of certain dark truths which cannot be brought to light, for one reason or another (most of them technical). The infamous “18 minutes” of Nixon’s White House tapes, considered crucial evidence of the plan to burgle the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee, went strangely missing. Mary Woods, Reagan’s White House secretary, couldn’t quite explain this enormous erasure of the tape while she rummaged in her desk for something she had misplaced. The details of the “Iran-Contra” scandal under Reagan, in 1986, in which arms were illegally sold to Iran in a deal to release seven American hostages, were well known by congressional investigators. Even Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, noted Reagan’s participation in the deal in his diary, but certain documents were either lost or withheld by White House aides. By then the case faded, and became a distant echo during George H. Bush’s presidential campaign.
We have the blue dress with the stains, but the precise meaning of Bill Clinton’s dalliances with Mona Lewinsky, and whether there were breaches of state secrets during those episodes in the Oval Office and the nearby cloakroom, became muddled the moment investigators began to sift the evidence. The impeachment trial ended in full acquittal after thousands of hours of close scrutiny. The notorious comment, “I did not have sex with that woman,” hung in the dim twilight of ambiguity and doublespeak, since Clinton was parsing all the legal terminology down to the legalistic meaning of what is is. And did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton really dodge sniper fire after alighting from a helicopter in Tuzla, Bosnia in 1996? That story went up in smoke as well.
When John Kerry launched his first presidential campaign, he was blindsided by a group calling itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an attack group of Vietnam veterans funded by Texas billionaires all in support of George W. Bush. After a run of national TV ads attacking Kerry’s conduct in the war and his service medals, Kerry seemed helpless to defend himself except to repeat that he earned his medals by courageous acts. But the public relished seeing Kerry squirm; he is a stiff, formal, well-to-do man whose distance and seemingly arrogant behavior made him a target for conservatives. He could legitimately prove his worth in the war, but the onslaught of accusations to the contrary had a noticeable effect upon his campaign, an assault on character from which he was slow to recover. The “truth” was not easily defended, and suggests that any truth now begins to merge with the fictions that gnaw away at it.
Secretary of State Colin Powell’s notorious address to the United Nations in February 2003 regarding Iraq’s failure to surrender all of its WMD turned on the “hard evidence” of photographs of a certain van which Powell said was one of eighteen “mobile biological agent factories” capable of manufacturing anthrax, botulinum toxin, aflatoxin, and ricin. Powell alluded to mountains of hard facts, personal accounts, defectors’ testimony to back his claim. The van, it turned out, was a weather station, nothing more. Cheney’s men had set up Powell and even inserted statements into his speech minutes before he gave it. His career and character were instantly destroyed by becoming the fall guy for an administration bent on invading Iraq. But while the truth got out against Powell, no such truth got close to any of the inner circle of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Torture, black ops, CIA “wet service,” the atrocities at Abu Graib, the flagrant disregard of legal limits on the Executive remain mere rumors and Washington gossip. Like David Hemmings, the investigative journalists always turn up the hint of a body but never the actual evidence of crimes committed.
Stephen Colbert introduced the word “truthiness” in his inaugural show, The Colbert Report, in 2005, after watching Fox News broadcasts in which climate change deniers, anti-Obama factions, and others feel free to depart as far as they dared from whatever the truth might be. Something that smacked of factuality was fine by Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, apparently, the point of Colbert’s coined word. The fact that the word caught on so quickly meant that many others also recognized what was going on in the news media. But talk radio had long ago allowed commentators to free-wheel it on matters of national policy and politics, the prime example being Rush Limbaugh. But Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin all led the charge against so-called “science” and other liberal causes. Biblical authority trumped post-Enlightenment empiricism, and once that gap was opened by far-right pundits, verifiability was no longer a controlling influence on what one said.
Now we hear of Brian Williams’ fabrication of being in the forward helicopter that took ground fire in Iraq; he now says he was in the second ship of the “four birds” that landed at a secured base. But members of the original helicopter teams have come forward to say that Williams was not among the four gunships, but in another group that arrived anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour later. After Williams’ first report back in 2003 of his near-miss experience, the story has been embroidered six other times to suggest he was in the thick of the hostile fire. Williams apologized on the air on February 4 to say he had made a mistake in his story, and regretted the confusion it has caused. He did not mention the other times he told the story, including his fictional account of the near-miss on the David Letterman show, and most recently at a basketball game where he praised the courage and fortitude of his helicopter pilot. The story keeps submerging into the ooze of contradictory accounts by others. NBC executives remain on the sidelines as Williams’ critics demand his resignation. But in the age of high-tech, facts shimmer in a labyrinth of mirrors, each detail bouncing off a previous one, until hardly anything remains of an original “truth.”
Williams, who has been sitting in the anchor’s chair at NBC News for the past decade, was until now a guardian of the so-called truth purveyed by network television. His lofty role was in part created by the sonorous voice of Walter Cronkite of CBS news, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley of NBC, and by Edward R. Murrow before them. The mere twenty minutes of content that comes across to us in the “news hole,” as journalists call the content portion of a morass of ads, is spun by men and women who depend upon the public’s assumption that vast newsrooms of journalists vet and polish the facts before giving them to their anchor people. But a larger context makes news a more dubious substance – the apologies and disclaimers the New York Times has been forced to make because of fabrications, plagiarisms, and the many times the editors there had printed planted pieces against Bill Clinton, on the so-called “bimbo explosions” written by Republican hacks. The powerful institutions that inform us have all faltered in our time, for one reason or another.
When a democracy begins to age and grow brittle, the first thing to suffer is the capacity to know the truth. In the infancy of the nation, our first stories of government included the inspiring fable of the young George Washington admitting to his stern father that he had cut down the cherry tree, because, as he said, “I cannot tell a lie.” Our other hero is “honest Abe.” Since then, presidents have shown how mortal they are, fallible, made of clay. But if they falter, the rest of the nation is in danger of deceiving itself about almost anything.