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We can't handle the truth

Tucked away in a Los Angeles Times article about celebrities and libel law is an observation about the rest of us that should get further attention: Truth in what is published is only one element, and perhaps not the most important one.

The article by James Rainey, “Free speech, libel and some ugly truths,” explains the attraction of the British legal system to maligned celebrities. British libel law is stricter than U.S. libel law, especially since the Supreme Court’s Sullivan ruling in 1964, which requires proof that a publisher presented a false statement knowingly, with malice, rather than out of negligence.

It is a ruling that matches the American character, which very much like to erect statues of heroes and then throw rocks at them (I think Mencken may have said this somewhere). It is also a key part of a legal system that allows the exposure of bad conduct by the great and the mighty. However, one consequence that Mr. Rainey points out is that “puerile tabloid and unsubstantiated blog reports use the same defense for less lofty reporting.” He goes on to observe — this is the key point:

It's not that the truth doesn't matter but that our system correctly values free-wheeling expression.

That freedom comes with imperfections that we don't accept but should understand.

We have always valued that exuberance of expression. Presidential elections since the early days of the Republic have been marked by the spread of scurrilous and unsubstantiated rumors about candidates. (Adams was a closet monarchist, Jefferson a raving Jacobin. Swift-boating is no novelty.)

I have speculated that as deconstructionist theory has seeped into the popular consciousness, there has been a growing sense that maybe there is no objective reality out there, and we are all welcome to construct the reality we find most congenial. And the Internet and the media have merely magnified the opportunity.*

Freedom of expression is a good thing, an essential thing, and toleration of contrary views, and even cranks, is necessary to preserve it. But I’m not sure that our old assumption that we would be moving toward truth through the free exchange of ideas still holds.

Look at the battles over the teaching of science; we can’t even agree on descriptions of how the physical world operates, but instead seek to impose our private views through governmental regulation.

You know about the “birthers,” the people who insist that Barack Obama is ineligible for the presidency because he is not a native-born citizen? They are pursuing a series of fruitless challenges through the court system. And, as you can see from a look at the comments on any article on the subject, nothing will persuade them otherwise.

Look at the Internet’s rumor-mongering and indulgence in calumny, which makes the old supermarket tabloids look restrained.

Look at how news organizations — you knew I would get to this — are abandoning editing. Too many “layers,” too many “touches.” If what gets published isn’t accurate — isn’t true — no big deal.* Statements of fact are fungible.

No sane person wants the government to determine what truth is. We have the record of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to warn us against that. Neither is anyone clamoring to replace U.S. libel law with the British version; that inhibit us in identifying miscreants. (It might be a good thing for U.S. libel law to catch up with the Internet, though.) It would probably help for the schools to teach critical thinking — or, for that matter, thinking — but that is visionary talk.

Be careful out there. It’s not easy to keep your wits about you.


* My wife and children enjoy watching one of those “reality” shows about professional chefs, even though they have read the disclaimers stating that it is the producers, not necessarily the judges, who make final decisions about winners and losers. The whole world is starting to look like professional wrestling.

** I’m leaving Wikipedia out, but you know where I stand by now.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:39 AM | | Comments (3)


I'm a little surprised that Rainey didn't mention Irving v. Lipstadt when discussing burden of proof. Perhaps he assumed his readers knew of the case.

"It is also a key part of a legal system that allows the expoaure of bnad conduct by the great and the mighty. However, one sonsequence that Mr. Rainey..."

What happened here? Did your spell-check go on vacation?

Evidently. Good of you to point these out.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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