The Age of Reason, (aka, the Age of Enlightenment), must have been a remarkable time to live in – to challenge the conventional wisdom that relied on the traditional forms of authority, and instead, stress analysis, individualism and reason. Can you imagine having discussions on the issues of the day with the likes of Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant and François-Marie Arouet, (better known as Voltaire)?
Known for his remarkable wit and intelligence (not to mention an incredible Crème brûlée) Voltaire was famous for his stand on freedom of religion and expression.
“Those who can make you believe absurdities,” Voltaire wrote, “can make you commit atrocities.” And this prophetic line: “Opinion has caused more trouble on this little earth than plagues or earthquakes.”
I wonder what Voltaire would think of the current state of rationale in America. Some 300 years after his death, we seem to have walked back the notion of freedom of expression and fallen into a chasm of cynicism where most everything is challenged and belief in individuals and institutions is only for the naïve or the dim. (In fact, using the term “cynicism” is a disservice to Diogenes of Sinope whose philosophical purpose was to live a virtuous life.)
According to Arbitron, the group that measures radio listenership, the most listened-to radio host in America is Rush Limbaugh with an audience of more than 13 million each week – (13 million cynics and counting.) In a recent program (Feb. 3), Limbaugh issued this papal decree to his followers: The children coming across the southern U.S. border “were never examined after they got here and quarantined if they had a disease. They were just sent out across the country. Many of them had measles … We now have an outbreak of it all because of our immigration policy.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning fact check organization, Politifact, rates Limbaugh’s statement as “Pants-on-Fire” false. Limbaugh’s track record on the truth is laughable, to say the least, (this from a man who bills his program as “Excellence in Broadcasting”). The sad part, of course, is that many believe Limbaugh.
But my question is this: What has happened to Reason in America?
Why do so many parents believe in a debunked article which claimed that measles leads to autism, when even the National Autism Association says the claims are false? Why are we, as a society, so quick to jump on the bandwagon of blame about footballs and bridge traffic in New Jersey before an investigation has even been completed?
More importantly, when did a healthy sense of skepticism turn to unremitting cynicism?
After The New York Post, a tabloid newspaper known for blatant sensationalism and hyperbole, printed and posted a series of front page stories about NBC News anchor Brian Williams’ personal account, and attempted correction about an incident in Iraq, they wrote that former NBC News anchor Tom “Brokaw wants Williams’ head on a platter,” according to an unnamed NBC source, (“unnamed source,” there’s credibility for you).
After the story appeared, a friend shared the following text she had received:
“[Williams is] just a media hack. No better than Moore, Rogan and Maher. They’re just a bunch of pampered pussies. The Post has it exactly right. … this guy is paid $10 million a year to read [off] the teleprompter. The least we could expect from him is honesty, don’t you think?”
To be clear, honesty in news reporting – all reporting – depends on “truthfulness which precludes intentional misrepresentations of fact, intent, or opinion (lying),” ethicist Michael Josephson writes. And anyone in the media, everyone in the media has a responsibility to not only report the truth, but not misrepresent that truth under the guise of “opinion.” (Are you listening, Rush?)
The Brian Williams incident is important from the standpoint that it not only affects the credibility of a trusted reporter whom millions depend upon for accuracy, but affects the integrity of the news organization he represents.
But before we grab the torches and pitchforks, let’s all take a breath and wait to see what facts an investigation finds.
FOX News (Feb.6), which, according to Politifact, has had its own issues with credibility, ran a story saying that “Brokaw pushed back late Friday, [saying] that he never demanded Williams be fired. He stopped short of defending his former colleague, however, saying ‘His future is up to Brian and NBC News executives.’ ”
The reality in the Williams case is we don’t know enough of the facts yet to make a judgment.
The reality in the larger sense is that we have seen many recent examples where individuals and institutions have lied and covered up but that should be no excuse to move to the dark side.
While IRS head Lois Learner was found to be responsible for singling out some conservative non-profit organizations for extra scrutiny before allowing tax-exempt status, an investigation also determined that that same scrutiny applied to some liberal non-profits, as well.
After the Ray Rice incident came to light, everyone and their brother believed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was guilty for having viewed, in advance, the tape that showed Rice knocking his then-girlfriend to the floor in an elevator. An investigation proved that Goodell and other top officials had, in fact, not viewed the video taken inside the elevator.
In that same FOX story about Williams, former CBS News anchor Dan Rather said, “I don’t know the particulars about that day in Iraq. I do know Brian. He’s a longtime friend and we have been in a number of war zones and on the same battlefields, competing but together. Brian is an honest decent man, an excellent reporter and anchor – and a brave one. I can attest that – like his predecessor Tom Brokaw – he is a superb pro and a gutsy one.”
While a healthy dose of skepticism is important in examining the alleged crimes and misdemeanors of politicians, corporate executives, celebrities and news reporters, we need to wait for all the facts before participating in the exercise du jour – jumping to conclusions.
In the 1943 western, “The Ox-Bow Incident,” a neighbor is believed to have been murdered and his cattle stolen. When a gang of citizens, led by a former Confederate Major, corner the men suspected of committing the crimes, based on circumstantial evidence, the Major rationalizes that the citizens are a duly formed posse intent on justice.
Tied-up and ready to be hung, one of the accused men, says, “Justice? What do you care about justice? You don’t even care whether you’ve got the right men or not. All you know is you’ve lost something and somebody’s got to be punished.”
If Brian Williams is guilty of intentionally lying about the helicopter incident in Iraq, an investigation will report that and he will face the consequences. In the meantime, we as a society need to put a lot more focus on reason and a lot less on cynicism.
“Thinking is the hardest work there is,” Henry Ford said, “which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.”