The matter of truth rises, like a Phoenix, as we approach the windswept bog of primary elections. Facts, so-called, will fly.
A fact that runs counter to one’s beliefs can be waved away as “opinion”, a weak step-child to bias. A myth that folds neatly into another’s dogma is embraced as truth. And over the years, accredited news reporters, working for established and reputable media groups, have pursued facts that compose elements of truth.
But things have changed. Thanks to Facebook and the Internet, anyone with a keyboard or a palm-sized videophone can self-anoint, become a “journalist.” Opinion may be broadcast as fact, and fact denounced as fake news, especially when reality runs contrary to personal belief, or to the agenda of a cause lobby or a politician.
The issue of truth has been with us since before Aristotle and Socrates. It creeps today into every corner of American life and thought, most vivid these days in politics and advertising. Especially television advertising.
The government, even, has tackled the matter of fact and truth. Decades ago, the Federal Trade Commission cracked down on Bayer aspirin, Excedrin, Anacin, Bufferin, Cope, Vanquish, Midol and other remedies which had become household words, for false advertising. The government ordered the drug companies to stop advertising a product unless their advertising included a government-ordered script. The script would say that Bayer or Bufferin aren’t any better than other aspirin, that Anacin doesn’t work twice as fast as aspirin, that Excedrin isn’t more effective than plain aspirin.
There was great rejoicing in the 1970s over this victory for truth, especially among liberals, who prepared to dance in the streets to see the big drug companies put in their place for luring foolish people to part with their money.
Back then, we celebrated the prospect of being spared those sickening television commercials with those little chunks of Anacin outracing the bits of aspirin from the glass stomach up to the plastic brain. But are we better off today with graphic discussions of ED, incontinence and irritable bowel syndrome? Or rabid political syndrome?
We had second thoughts back then. The aspirin and Anacin brothers in pharma may have been playing fast and loose with the truth, but so have a lot of people – presidents, generals, Twitter moguls, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, nearly every member of Congress, and millions of ordinary citizens. The medicine commercials aren’t the only topic on television that’s distorted. So are some of the documentaries and news reports, and Mitch McConnell and Joe Biden aren’t the only ones who think so. And a lot of Russians think Putin is a liar.
The basic argument for free expression – for a free press – is that there is no divine, official truth in a society such as ours. Truth is supposed to emerge from the free exchange and interplay of all varieties of truth and untruth. This is what we insist upon for the news columns and news broadcasts. It is no less valid when applied to advertising columns and commercials, political and otherwise.
If Anacin is not better than aspirin, as Anacin claims it is, or Pepcid better than Rolaids, then isn’t it up to the aspirin or Rolaids people to say so? If the Democrats claim that Trump is bad for our country, it’s up to the Republicans to show otherwise, rather than distorting the argument with meaningless calls of “fake news.” Should the government determine whether Dillon’s groceries are better than White’s? Or that Fords are better than Chevys? Or is that best left to the customers, just as the argument whether Laura Kelly is good or bad for Kansas?
If none of those pills or politics are good for us, isn’t it up to the doctors or politicians to say so?
Of course the counter argument is that rich and powerful drug companies or political campaigns can sell anything with their saturation advertising and that those who feel they’re wrong are helpless to compete because of lack of resources or media access. Thus, a government crackdown is the only recourse.
That may be true, and if it is, we must accept that we are moving swiftly away from free expression.
No one in the press seriously concerned about its freedom can view a cry for ministerial “truth-in-labeling,” as anything short of a desire for government censorship. When those in power or approaching power claim authority to define “truth,” they preside at the birth of censorship.