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An anchorage?


02/15/18



 In our media-saturated world, one cannot easily avoid the news of the day. It comes at us in all forms and at all times of the day. Worse still, what is truly newsworthy, that is, a candidate for arresting our attention, is a discernment often largely out of our hands. The news at the top of the hour or at the top of our news aggregator or social media site may well be a mixture of the tragic, trivial, ephemeral, critical or just plain gossip. To these categories, there needs now be added “fake news.”

The news and analysis of this very day are a case in point. The release of an unclassified House Intelligence Committee memorandum has sparked a firestorm of claims and counterclaims, one side assuring the public that its contents are accurate such that serious conclusions must be drawn, while the other side insists editing beforehand has distorted the content and thus represents error and deception. Who is to be believed?
Skepticism leads readily to suspicion and eventually to cynicism. “They’re all liars,” so said my late grandfather of politicians, and I, in the naiveté of youth, thought surely he must be wrong. His broad condemnation came back to me, however, when later in the news program a clip was played of a public official saying one thing in a radio interview two months ago that he flatly denied ever saying just this morning. The commentator coyly characterized his duplicity as “Washington transactional truth,” by which, I suppose, one is to assume that truth depends on who says what at what time to whom in what circumstances and for what purposes.
“What is truth,” or so the Gospel of John reports Pontius Pilate asked of Jesus. According to the story, however, Pilate did not stay around for an answer. Centuries later, Lord Bacon opined that the reason was Pilate was simply jesting. Still others read into his action a “bitterness of a mind that had been tossed to and fro in the troubled sea of contemporaneous thought, and despaired of an anchorage.”
Where is the anchorage in the sea of news? Sissela Bok first published Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life in 1978. Writing a preface to its reissue in 1989, she lamented, “…the erosion of public trust as lies build up into vast institutional practices.” Since 1989, sadly, we have witnessed an ever greater and more pervasive erosion of public trust in virtually all of our heretofore respected institutions. Unlike Pilate, however, we cannot simply leave the question “What is truth?” hanging and then walk out of the room. 
Stephen Reno is executive director of Leadership New Hampshire and former chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire. His email is stepreno@gmail.com. 





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