With U.S. Reality Star in Chief Donald J. Trump almost daily underlining the devaluation of honesty in these unUnited States, PBS’s Frontline is crediting, or blaming, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for delivering us to this sorry point in American history.
“‘A Serial Liar’: How Sarah Palin Ushered in the ‘Post-Truth’ Political Era in Which Trump Has Thrived,” Frontline’s web page headlines in a lead up to a two-night, four-hour special premiering today.
As a politician and later polebrity, Palin did prove a master at creating stories that could trump reality, but the fading of honesty as an American value predates her by years if not decades.
She didn’t overnight change the culture because cultures don’t change overnight. Values don’t suddenly disappear. They slowly rot away like old, dead trees.
Honesty has been in decay in the United State at least since the Reagan administration. Facts have become less and less important as the narrative has become more and more important.
The myths people want to believe are sometimes regularly now more acceptable than the truth. The stories have overpowered reality.
Reality is messy, confused, contradictory, complicated. Stories, or at least good ones, are simple. There are unflawed good guys. There are unredeemable bad guys. And in the end, the good guys win.
Every fan of the movies knows this.
Trump’s fans and Trump’s enemies today share one thing in common. They hold dear the opposing stories they embrace. The only difference is that in one camp Trump is the hero, and in the other camp he is the villain.
And these distortions of the complicated reality are not new. The importance of the story over the facts has been evolving for a long time.
The story wins
I was in Barrow in 1988 when the Anchorage Daily News – Alaska’s largest newspaper – joined the party.
Three whales were caught in the ice off the community now known Utqiaġvik. The only reason they weren’t dead was because the locals don’t much like the way they taste.
These were gray whales, the stewing chickens of the ocean in the eyes of the Inupiat, not bowheads, the kobe beef they hunt. The trapped grays were a novelty instead of dinner, but when video showed the world outside of Barrow how they sadly surfaced again and again to catch a few breaths of air in a couple small openings in a sea of ice, their sad story – and it was a very sad story – became a national cause.
Somebody had to “save” these whales because….
Well, because their plight was moving. Death in nature is almost always ugly, and this was ugly. The video almost immediately spawned a move to free the whales from their icy death trap.
The problem was that the Arctic was making ice a whole lot faster than rescue operations could be mobilized. By the time the authorities on gray whales arrived in Barrow to offer advice on the situation, it was clear the whales were beyond saving.
Off-the-record, all the experts agreed on that. There were miles of solid ice between the whales and open water. Three whales unable to negotiate a few miles of broken ice to escape the clutches of the Arctic weren’t going to be able to negotiate all that solid ice and then more broken ice to reach open water in the ocean no matter what man did.
None of the scientists, however, were going to go on record saying the whales were doomed although David Withrow did hint at it. Early on, he noted that whales dying like this was the way nature works. Then he shut up.
Such comments were not heard again. Withrow might well have been ordered not to say more. The great whale rescue was marvelous public relations for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
NOAA officials were portrayed as the heroic leaders of a rescue on which almost $6 million would eventually be spent. They were even credited with improving international relations after a Russian ice breaker was called in to help.
This was the feel-good story of the year.
The ADN then had a high-minded policy of avoiding the use of unnamed sources in news stories if it at all possible. Exceptions were sometimes made. No one was willing to make an exception on this one.
The mainstream media had decided how the story was going to be played, and the ADN wasn’t about to buck the herd. I was summoned home to Anchorage for arguing for reporting what the scientists were privately saying, and ADN reporter Rich Mauer, who was in those days spending as much of his time writing for The New York Times as for the ADN, went north to take my place.
He eventually reported the happy departure of the whales as they appeared to follow Russian ice breakers toward the open ocean far, far away. Needless to say, the whales weren’t wearing satellite-tracking devices.
The excuse was that fitting the whales with them would have put too much stress on the animals. The reality was simpler. Nobody involved wanted the world to know when the whales died in the ice as all of the scientists expected.
After it was over, a reporter for Japanese TV, Tom Rose, wrote a book titled “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event.” Kirkus Reviews at the time described it as “a spirited account of media mania.”
A feel-good movie featuring Hollywood celebrities was later made about the whale rescue, and the book was subsequently retitled “Big Miracle,” the same title as the movie. The reviews now say this:
“Tom Rose, who was covering the event for a Japanese TV station, compellingly describes how oil company executives, environmental activists, Inupiat people, small business people, and the U.S. military boldly worked together to rescue the whales. He also tells the stories of some of the more than 150 international journalists who brought the story to the world’s attention. The rescue was followed by millions of people around the world as Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev joined the forces of their two nations to help free the whales.”
Maybe the whales, coming as they did shortly before so-called “reality TV,” marked the start of the descent into the post-truth world where “personal truth,” as one young journalist explained it to me a few years ago, is every bit as important as truth.
She’d written a story containing inaccurate information. She conceded the information was wrong, but argued it was the “personal truth” of the person who told it to her so it didn’t need to be verified. How the reader of a news story was to determine such “personal truths” from the actual truth was not explained.
But this is where we are today.
There are lies. There are liars. And there are people voicing personal truths that might even spread beyond them to become tribal truths embraced by their tribe and loathed by the other tribes or tribes.
Palin and Trump did not create this situation. They took advantage of this situation. And Trump is the ultimate end result.
Tempered in that crucible of “reality TV,” which is anything but real, the lizard part of his brain early wrapped itself around the evolutionary path to success in these times:
Come up with a good story and sell it.
After years of listening to Presidential candidates who promised to go to Washington to make things better for the average American only to go to Washington to make things better for themselves while special interests flourished, the country was primed for a candidate who wanted to go to Washington and burn the place down.
Can you say “drain the swamp?”
It was a marvelous fiction. Anyone who understood cultural change knew this wasn’t going to happen because cultures don’t change overnight. But a lot of Americans accepted it as a call to arms because it echoed their personal truth that anything wrong in the country can be blamed on Washington.
It was a good story.
Fiction vs fiction
Ever since then, or at least ever since Trump’s election, the mainstream media (MSM) has been trying to sell its own, opposing story. This is the one has the Russians and “fake news” putting Trump in the White House.
But the Russians didn’t tamper with any ballot boxes. The Russians didn’t control any votes.
No, the accusation is that the Russians somehow persuaded American voters with crafty stories promoting the virtues of Trump.
Well, welcome to democracy. This is the way it works.
If the MSM is right about the persuasion, the blame isn’t really on the Russians. It’s on ignorant, buffoonish, easily misled, factually disinterested American voters, which would appear to be how the mainstream views a lot of Americans.
There’s no getting around the fact Trump got elected because Americans voted for him, or because they voted against his opponent, Hilary Clinton. This is the way our elections work. Pick one: Tweedle-dee or Tweedle-dum.
That a bunch of Americans apparently didn’t care that Trump was prone to making things up as he goes along is understandable. This is what we now expect politicians to do. The truth is something that mattered in a different time.
The statement was a baldfaced lie that, worse yet, painted Monica Lewinsky as a liar and helped perpetuate for almost two more decades the idea that women exist for the pleasure of powerful men.
Harvey Weinstein, the Bill Clinton of the movie business, would carry on long after Clinton was gone from office. It would take a long time until both were was outed as sexual opportunists of the worst sort if not sexual predators.
More than 100 U.S. newspapers called for Clinton to resign after it became obvious he’d lied and lied and lied again about the Lewinsky affair. Neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post were among them, however, and they were only more opposed to impeaching Clinton for his lies.
They bought into the argument his impeachment was all just partisan politics born of “fake news.” Those words weren’t specifically used then but the roots of the label trace back to this period when Hillary, Bill’s spouse and long-time enabler, famously declared her husband was, as the Washington Post reported it, “the victim of a ‘politically motivated’ prosecutor allied with a ‘vast right-wing conspiracy.'”
The truth? Who cares.
And then came “reality TV” – “Survivor,” “The Bachelor,” “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” and, of course, “The Apprentice.” These sorts of shows hit the 2000s as semi-real, and exploded into make-believe in the 2010s with “Alaskan Bush People” helping lead the way even if it couldn’t begin to compete with “Amish Mafia,” of which Lancaster Online in 2015 wondered “what could possibly be fake about Amish men wielding baseball bats, shotguns and assault rifles while keeping the peace in Lancaster County’s Amish community?
“Let’s settle that score: Amish Mafia is not real. Amish Mafia is fake.”
Nobody cared. So TV was running a bunch of shows professing to be factual when in reality they were totally fictional. What’s the problem? We like the stories they tell.
When U.S. television pitched fake game shows as real in the 1950s, the fictions became a national scandal.
“Broadcast live and in prime time, the big-money quiz show presented itself as a high-pressure test of knowledge under the heat of kleig lights and the scrutiny of fifty-five million participant-observers,” the Museum of Broadcast Communications records.
By 1956, 50 million Americans were turning in to watch a show called “Twenty One,” and this in a time when TV sets were not the ubiquitous household appliances they are today.
The show’s most famous participant, Charles van Doren, earned “$129,000 in prize money ($1.2 million in 2019), the cover of Time magazine, and a permanent spot on NBC’s Today, where he discussed non-Euclidean geometry and recited seventeenth century poetry. He put an all-American face to the university intellectual in an age just getting over its suspicion of subversive ‘eggheads,”’ the museum says.
‘The gravy train derailed in August and September of 1958 when disgruntled former contestants went public with accusations that the results were rigged and the contestants coached. First, a standby contestant on Dotto produced a page from a winner’s crib sheet. Then, the still bitter Herbert Stempel, Van Doren’s former nemesis on Twenty One, told how he had taken a dive in their climatic encounter. The smoking gun was provided by an artist named James Snodgrass, who had taken the precaution of mailing registered letters to himself with the results of his appearances on Twenty One predicted in advance. Most of the high-drama match-ups, it turned out, were as carefully choreographed as the June Taylor Dancers.
“By October 1958, as a New York grand jury convened by prosecutor Joseph Stone investigated the charges and heard closed-door testimony, quiz show ratings had plummeted. For their part, the networks played damage control, denying knowledge of rigging, canceling the suspect shows, and tossing the producers overboard.”
Stone found plenty of evidence the shows were rigged, but a judge decided rigging a game show wasn’t illegal and sealed the grand jury documents. That stirred Congress to act.
Reality shows are conditioning tens of millions of Americans to the idea that fake is as good as real. What could be wrong with that? It was so unwrong that even government agencies such as the Alaska State Troopers thought it was OK to play along – wink, wink.
Against this backdrop, it is startling that some, probably many, journalists and former journalists are appalled that the country isn’t outraged by the 10,000 lies (or whatever the number now) President Trump is alleged to have told since taking office.
They seem somehow clueless as to the post-truth world in which they are living, and of which they are too often part.
Because, like Trump, some of them seem fine with their personal truths as well.
The photo above is a social media post of racist bitches for Trump from Howard Weaver, the former vice president for news for The McClatchy Company, once one of the most powerful news organizations in the country. Some will recognize Weaver as the former editor of the Anchorage Daily News.
The photo is a fake – fake news if one wishes to call it such – that an alert high schooler would be smart enough to double-check before reposting if, of course, facts mattered. But their value has so declined that Weaver fired this off without a thought.
It took only a couple minutes for anyone who cared to check the photo to find out that in the original the women were wearing t-shirts saying “I’m a Trump girl.” When someone did and so informed Weaver, he admitted making a mistake, but offered no apology.
Wouldn’t have posted it? Why not?
If the women are Trump supporters, half of them (is it the top row or the bottom row?) would be among the “deplorables” as Hillary Clinton classed them, and might well be racist bitches.
If you spend much time on social media you will actually see people offering exactly these sorts of rationalizations to defend factually inaccurate memes designed to dehumanize political opponents left or right.
It’s one of the sadder aspects of the American culture war, which might help explain why some of these memes seem to echo World War II propaganda posters.
America was then in an actual war on which hinged the fate of the world. In times of war, one can pretty easily make the argument the ends justify the means. In times of war, lying is often necessary for survival.
In times of peace?
A functioning democracy is largely built on the idea people can agree on a fundamental set of facts even if they disagree greatly on how those facts are suggesting they should proceed politically. Somewhere, however, a significant number of Americans have lost sight of this.
Lots of them are now willing to distort the facts to buttress their arguments for where they want to take the country politically be that left or right. And when called on the distortions, these are too often their responses:
“Yes, it’s inaccurate, but it could be true.” Or “yes, it’s inaccurate, but it reflects the bigger injustice.” Or, best of all, “no, it’s not; what my enemies said could be read to mean what I’ve concluded.”
One can defend inaccuracies this way these days because honesty has lost so much of its value. The ends justify the means in almost all cases. Trump really hasn’t told a single lie; he’s just expressing his personal truths.
Palin wasn’t really lying either; she was just doing what one has to do in America to get elected, and later to get even with the men and their surrogates who made her a national laughingstock in order to win the election.
The Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare as she preferred to call it – might not have spelled out creation of actual “death panels” in “which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand…so (Obama’s) bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care,” as she claimed.
Maybe. Sort of.
It depends on what the meaning of “is” is.
This is America today. Palin might have been a player in the decay of virtue. She might even have been a big player. But this neither started with her nor has it ended with her fading from the stage. A lot of Americans are implicated in this change in ways big and small.
And Trump might be the least of the problem. While a media and a “resistance” preoccupied with his Tweets is chasing every rude comment or aggressive outburst, any number of government agencies in cities, boroughs and states across the country are easing their way into a takeover of the news.
But then what could possibly be wrong with your local law enforcement agency covering itself?
Correction: Bowhead whales were misidentified in an early version of this story.