There is a disturbing pattern to recent events in the news.
On April 5, Columbia University's School of Journalism released its damning report on the Rolling Stone article about a brutally violent gang rape at the University of Virginia. As many suspected, the report reveals that author Sabrina Rubin Erdely did not do even the most basic investigative work on the allegations made by "Jackie," the accuser. None of the facts related to the attack can be proven (and many have been disproven). Rolling Stone has officially retracted the story, and Erdely has apologized (though not to the members of the fraternity accused of rape). But the damage to UVA and the accused fraternity — not to mention future victims of actual assaults — is incalculable.
A few days earlier, we were treated to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's interview with CNN's Dana Bash. In July of 2012, Reid had taken to the Senate floor and accused Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney of having evaded taxes for a decade. Pressed for details, including a source, Reid demurred, insisting that an "insider" at Bain Capital had provided the information. PolitiFact characterized this as a lie of "pants on fire" magnitude, but widespread press coverage produced the intended effect.
In the interview, Bash asked Reid whether he regretted using such deceitful tactics. "Some might call it McCarthyite," she suggested. Reid was impenitent. "They can call it whatever they like," he sneered. "Romney didn't win, did he?"
The social mediaverse erupted. Even in today's jaded political climate, this struck observers as brazen. But why are we surprised? Deceit by politicians has become de rigueur; one more tool to be used in pursuit of a desired end.
Last fall, we heard MIT economics professor Jonathan Gruber's videotaped admissions that "lack of transparency" was necessary in order to pass Obamacare, because Americans are "too stupid" to do what he and the rest of the political elite think is best for us. This was preceded by the abysmal launch of Healthcare.gov, and the revelations that President Obama's years of assurances about his signature piece of legislation were lies. He had promised Americans that they would lose neither their insurance plans nor their doctors, knowing it wasn't true. Millions lost both.
The American media's obsequious love affair with Obama has played a key role in this manipulation, as they have overlooked his administration's grievous ruptures of the public trust, including Obamacare, Fast and Furious, Benghazi and the Bowe Bergdahl trade for terrorists (to say nothing of his disregard for the constitutional limits of his office). The press dutifully repeats White House talking points like victims of Jedi mind control: "You can keep your doctor. ... We knew nothing about the guns. ... It was a video. ... He served with distinction. ... These aren't the droids we're looking for." Nothing to see here, folks; move along.
This would be dangerous enough if it were an isolated case of cult of personality. But as the Rolling Stone/UVA rape story demonstrates, principles of journalistic integrity have been abandoned more broadly, in favor of what's called the "larger narrative": It doesn't matter if this particular story isn't true or who is falsely accused; what matters are the social ends we want to accomplish.
In their articles about the Columbia report, authors Clay Shirky in The New Republic, and Jay Rosen in PressThink, both identify a key word: "emblematic." Erdely was searching for an "emblematic" rape case. Phi Kappa Psi was seen as an "emblematic" fraternity. In response to the statement that Erdely was looking for a school with the "right feel," Rosen retorts, "What kind of 'feel' is this? It's feeling for a fit between discovered story and a prior — given — narrative."
There seems to be a collective shrug of helpless resignation when politicians or policymakers lie. But we should be appalled when journalists facilitate those lies (or create their own) because they share the liars' social objectives.
When politicians can lie with impunity and "journalists" are more enamored with a "narrative" than with facts, we are in grave peril, indeed. It is hard to know which is more damaging: believing the lies that we are being told or sinking into a state of cynical resignation, assuming that no one tells the truth anymore. Either result rewards the liars and corrodes the culture.
We deserve better. But we will not get it unless we demand it. From deceitful politicians, we can withhold our vote. From deceitful media, we can withhold our money. Those are — apparently — the primary currencies they understand.