"It is a finer thing," said H.L. Mencken, "to face machine guns for immortality and a medal, but isn't it a fine thing, too, to face calumny, injustice and loneliness for the truth which makes men free?"
Fine words those, enriching our morality and refreshing our spirits. In fact, however, the good fight is sometimes counter-productive, and the truth does not always set us free. Sometimes, it wounds us.
Teenagers still want to be journalists, but American newspapers are going out of business. Meanwhile, senior masters of the art, many of them suffering from the shouting sickness, dominate what remains of the video news media. And, in the end, almost everything we think, do, hope and want involves both truths and lies.
The role of American journalism and of its practitioners has evolved to meet the requirements of a changing society. Increasingly, many of them report not facts but hypotheses. Opinions are qualified. Beliefs, if any, remain hidden within penetrating, hostile questions. Like memoranda in government, the wording of a column is designed not so much to inform as to protect the writer from judgments or predictions found faulty. Spot news bulletins on television tantalize us with shocking sentence fragments that promise further details once the commercials are over.
In both print and electronic media, journalists spend a good deal of time surfing surrogates–individuals whose remarks support both sides of a controversial issue, the impression being given that both are equally worthy of our attention and will satisfy our need for a detailed exposition of the matter.
It is now sometimes argued that in any given society, contemporary or historical, there is no such thing as a "good" or "evil" person. Some mainstream journalists, held hostage by the notion of diversity, reason that some people are socially acceptable, while others are not, and that is about as far as moral judgment can take us. Evolving professionally, journalists become masters of the euphemism while, here and there, a few specialize in provocative candor.
A euphemism is a special class of lie that sugar coats an unpleasant reality. Thus: "We accept collateral damage as the necessary consequence of a just war." By contrast, candor, whether well meant or hostile, cuts to the chase: "You have a problem with someone?" said Stalin, "Kill him. No more problem." Both kinds of statements can be uttered with feeling and conviction, by either acceptable or unacceptable people.
So what’s a teacher of wordsmithing going to do? Bright students of the art deserve guidance.
Ignore, for the moment, definitions of truths and lies. Pay attention, instead, to what functions they perform. Thus: The proper function of a truth is to prepare us for both pleasant and unpleasant eventualities. The proper function of a lie is to provide both structure and meaning to past events and ongoing operations, thereby justifying intended future actions. Distinguishing between the two and writing about it is what journalism is supposed to be all about. In such an occupation, it helps to have a sense of humor and a tolerance for ambiguity.
Some people sing a lament for an older kind of journalism, which aimed for both punch and precision. Today, they say, the punch remains but the precision begs for its dinner.
In engineering practice, precision in measurement is nearly always specified in terms of tolerances. One says, for example, that the positioning accuracy of a registration pin is plus or minus 1/1,000th of an inch.
In American journalism and advertising, however, a blurring in precision and certainty has become common. This has also happened in the sciences, where physics leads the way with its theories of quantum mechanics, which reject the idea of multiple, simultaneous measurements, or of a best single point from which to measure.
As in quantum mechanics, truth functions as a statistical approximation of reality. By contrast, a lie exhibits both specificity and precision. The distinction between the two is apparent in their antonyms. Antonyms are words of opposite meaning, some precisely so and others more or less. The word "lie" is pejorative, suggesting an evil intention on the part of the perpetrator. By contrast, its antonym, "truth," functions principally in the abstract, existing apart from the individual who utters it. It glows with goodness and health, like multigrain bread. We say, commonly, that a lie is created in the mind of a speaker, while a truth exists in the eye of the beholder. The first employs a conscious motive, while the other involves default percepts. Some of these percepts may be hard-wired into our brains.
Weeds in the garden of ambiguity include half-truths, inadvertent truths and white lies. Sometimes we shave the truth with generalities so as to avoid liability, as when we report that the stream in which a victim drowned had an average depth of one and a half feet. Closely related are inadvertent truths, sometimes called Freudian slips. As George W. Bush observed, "I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office."
And finally, for talented illusionists, there are obituaries, a socially acceptable kind of lie. Obituaries are the kind of stuff from which histories are made, of course. As Winston Churchill observed, "History will be kind to me, for I shall write it."
Newcomers to the journalistic profession are sometimes assigned to the obituary office in the basement, the site of the newspaper's wax museum. A fairyland of truths and lies, the obituary provides any thinking atheist with proof of life after death. Memorializing the dead, their cosmetic reconstructions sometimes produce products unrecognizable to surviving friends, enemies and family. In the end, it is the marginally corrupt who benefit most from their obituaries. Readers and viewers love the mischievous children found in comic strips and the adult scoundrels in political pamphlets. Human and familiar, they are exemplars without fault.
So, now that we've shown you how it's done, go forth and multiply. And, if a career in American journalism does not appeal to you, consider it a stepping-stone to a better-paying line of work. Illuminating the twilight zone between journalism and propaganda is public relations, for whose practitioners a special place in Hell has been reserved. For those who seek that road more often travelled, stay tuned for more Screwtape counsel.