Next week, President Trump is expected to announce his “MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR.” The phrasing leaves it unclear whether it is the media, or the awards themselves, which are dishonest and corrupt. It depends on your perspective, like most discussion of truth and lies in the media. A journalist who has never been accused of touting “fake news” is probably a journalist who has never said anything interesting, and readers who want to remain undeceived must get used to checking and double-checking what they read against other sources. As Craig Silverman, one of the first writers to identify the phenomenon of fake news, recently complained, “today a phrase or image can come to mean anything you want it to, so long as you have enough followers, propagators, airtime, attention—and the ability to coordinate all of them.”
Surveying the media landscape of the mid-eighteenth century, Samuel Johnson proposed that some especially malicious lies should be punished with the use of “a whipping-post or a pillory.” Johnson feared what might happen if lying became even more widespread: “Without truth there must be a dissolution of society,” he told Boswell, adding: “Society is held together by communication and information.” Our own “information disorder” offers a microcosm of Johnson’s nightmare scenario. Political debate is already filled with mutual suspicion; if the same mistrust characterised our daily interactions with colleagues and neighbours, social existence would indeed become impossible.
Johnson recognized that lying is especially tempting during a national crisis. “In a time of war the nation is always of one mind, eager to hear something good of themselves and ill of the enemy.” And he counted this “diminution of the love of truth” as one of war’s worst effects. Today, when political debates are treated almost like wars, and when each faction is “eager to hear something . . . ill of the enemy,” it is not surprising that lies are everywhere. If a cause is supremely important—and to many people, political victory is the greatest cause of all—then lying comes naturally. All that can prevent it is a belief, like Johnson’s, that the love of truth must not be put aside for any motive. Johnson would go to considerable lengths to avoid lying. Like many of his contemporaries, he often wrote anonymously, and when friends tried to detect his authorship, he would fend them off without actually denying it. Johnson secretly ghost-wrote a sermon for William Dodd, a clergyman who was facing execution for forgery. When William Seward hinted in conversation that Johnson must have been the author, since the sermon was unusually cogent by Dodd’s standards, Johnson gave his celebrated reply: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Johnson’s conscience would not let him make an outright denial.
In this spirit, he argued that a literary critic has a responsibility not to hand out unearned praise or blame—because it would “destroy the distinction of good and evil.” And he encouraged Hester Thrale to teach her children to avoid the smallest falsehoods. For instance, if they were telling a story and made some irrelevant mistake—saying something happened at the window on the right when it actually happened at the window on the left—“Do not let it pass, but instantly check them; you do not know where deviation from truth will end.”
Truth-telling, as Johnson knew, requires a constant self-discipline. Little errors and distortions slip in without our noticing. If this is true in our daily lives—the anecdote given a little too much polish, the excuse made a little too readily—it is also true of public debate. For instance, when Google’s James Damore wrote the internal memo for which he was sacked, he took pains to say that his claims about gender differences did not apply to individuals. “Many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.” But several of Damore’s critics skated over this distinction—including Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who announced: “To suggest a group of our colleagues have traits that make them less biologically suited to that work is offensive and not OK.” I can barely be bothered to point out the mistake: It feels like nit-picking, and why go out of one’s way to defend Damore, who for all I know is wrong anyway? But this is how we become accustomed to untruth.
Take a slightly different example. It recently emerged that some of the “child refugees” accepted into Sweden were age eighteen or over. Out of 80,000 young asylum applicants in two years, 8,000 were investigated over a seven-month period, and more than 6,000 turned out not to be children. It’s an interesting story. But a widely-shared tweet expanded this to: “Three quarters of Sweden’s ‘child refugees’ are actually adults.” Which, of course, is false—it wasn’t three quarters of the whole lot, just of the fairly small proportion who were thought to be worth checking in the first place.
Again, protesting the error feels pointless, but as Johnson remarked to Mrs. Thrale: “It is more from carelessness about truth than from intentional lying, that there is so much falsehood in the world.” What if everyone in public life spent, say, a week, holding themselves to an extreme carefulness about truth, to the most zealous pedantry? It might have a purgative effect.
Dan Hitchens is deputy editor of the Catholic Herald.