I kept waiting to read a column devoted to this observation, and maybe it’s out there and I just haven’t seen it. But since I haven’t, here goes:
The best thing about President Biden’s inaugural address was that he called out Republican lies without mincing words. And the results of that decision might yet prove transformative.
It started with a quote from Saint Augustine describing “a people” as “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” Then Biden suggested this list of the “common objects” of American love: Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, “and, yes, the truth.”
Here’s the payoff:
“There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders — leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation — to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
The 45th President is the most thoroughly documented serial liar in recorded history, with The Washington Post Fact Checking department documenting 30,573 false or misleading statements during his four-year term.
But there’s no way President 45 would have completed that term without the enthusiastic support of other liars. Republicans in Congress, in his administration, in the party’s national leadership, yes — but most importantly on Fox News and across the right-wing propaganda ecosystem.
The Republicans and propagandists who shielded Trump during his first impeachment knew he was guilty of the charges. They just didn’t care. They lied on his behalf, got away with it, and reassured the American people that their president, now “chastened” by the ordeal, would be more cautious in the future.
We all know how that turned out.
If you’re old enough to remember Watergate, you know that lots of things contributed to Nixon’s downfall. But the political Right’s main takeaway — described by former GOP propagandist David Brock in his groundbreaking 2004 book “The Republican Noise Machine” — was that America’s free press cost them control of the White House.
Rather than merely bitching about “the liberal media,” the Republican elites of the mid-1970s promptly created a concerted, stealthy and well-financed campaign to undermine our basic concept of a shared set of common facts.
“From the Washington Times, to a stint as a ‘research fellow’ at the Heritage Foundation, to a position as an ‘investigative writer’ at the muckraking magazine The American Spectator, and as the author of a best-selling right-wing book, I forwarded the right-wing agenda not as an open political operative or advocate but under the guise of journalism and punditry, fueled by huge sums of money from right-wing billionaires, foundations, and self-interested corporations,” Brock wrote.
I spent my entire journalism career in an industry thoroughly cowed and befuddled by the Right’s “liberal media bias” campaign, and I was as affected and hobbled as anyone. How do you define bias? What’s fair? What’s objective? It’s an endless vortex, and so long as the side making the accusation is acting out of bad faith, all fair-minded engagement inevitably flows straight downhill to nihilism.
The answer, of course, is to forget “bias” and focus on facts. We all have perspectives. We’re all ignorant of something, and we all make mistakes.
But we don’t all lie. And when you track the way people treat the documented, observable facts at the foundation of any topic, you can learn who is trying to find the truth, and who is actively working to obscure it.
This isn’t to say that Centrists and Lefties always meet a pure standard of truth. They don’t. But all recent Republican efforts toward establishing some “both sides do it” false equivalency are exactly that: False equivalency. In other words: Yet another lie.
Washington Post media columnist Eric Wemple occasionally grates on my last nerve, but he nailed the relevant point brilliantly earlier this week. In a column demanding that respected Fox News journalists Chris Wallace and Brett Baier speak out against the abuses of truth by the channel’s “Opinion Host” propagandists, he quoted this response by Wallace to a question at a Columbia University event last February:
“Nobody tends to ask people at the New York Times, ‘Well, how do you cover your beat when you’ve got Paul Krugman, who is expressing strong left-wing views, or Charles Blow expressing strong anti-Trump views?’ Just like there are people in my prime time who are very opinionated and generally pro-Trump. And the answer is: They do what they do; I do what I do. It’s a different piece of real estate.”
That’s a standard news-side dodge. I’ve used it myself when readers complained about editorial columnists. But Wemple didn’t let Wallace off so easily.
“No way, Wallace,” Wemple wrote. “New York Times opinion columnists opine from a shared set of facts. And when they veer from that standard, there’s hell to pay. Fox News prime-timers opine from a shared set of conservative fantasies. And when they veer from that standard, their viewers give them hell.”
And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The long and the short of decades of media-credibility debates distilled down to four crisp, truthful, sharp-edged sentences.
One of the reasons we wound up with four years of Trump was that the men and women at the top of our for-profit American media landscape refused to confront the obvious truth: We’ve been tolerating right-wing lies as “free speech” for so long that they became a thoroughly fraudulent culture-war narrative for at least 74 million Americans.
Four years ago, American journalists were afraid to call a lie a lie. Today, after witnessing the carnage that flowed from that failure, many journalists are now finding the courage to speak up. Bless them all.
Having a President who is willing to speak the same truth to the American people is absolutely invaluable. By tying the idea of “defending the truth” to the foundational concept of what it means to be an American, Biden did his country a great service.
And I couldn’t help myself. I literally stood up from my chair and saluted him for that singular moment of clarity and conviction.
And yeah, Fox and the GOP and 74 million Americans are gonna bitch about it. We don’t care. Hit dog gonna holler.
All the same problems still face us. But their solutions — if we’re ever going to find them — all demand identifying the lies that helped create those problems in the first place.