ELIZABETH PAGE: The right to lie

When my daughter was about 4 years old, a neighbor called to ask if she’d accidentally taken home one of their toys. I don’t even remember what the toy was — it was small and plastic and of no consequence except for the fact that it was a favorite of the child who couldn’t find it.

So I asked my daughter if she’d taken it. And she flat out lied to me. And she was so convincing that when I stumbled on the toy in her room an hour later I was shocked. And more angry that I’ve ever been at her before or since. So angry that I actually scared her. And yes, I was overtired and overworked and no doubt overreacted. But it was more than that. The lie absolutely gutted me.

Why is that? Why did a lie of no consequence upset me so much? She was a child, the toy didn’t matter, the neighbors didn’t care. Why was this lie so upsetting?

Because I’d been taught not to lie.

And it wasn’t even a matter of religion or sin or going to hell or any of that. It was just flat wrong. You did not lie. It was absolutely fundamental. The world couldn’t function if we couldn’t trust what we were told.

And had I lied? Of course I had. I was in my 40s. I’d lied to my parents when I was a teenager and they’d asked where I was going and with whom. I’d “white lied” to acquaintances when I didn’t want their company or actually loathed the coat they’d just bought. I’d lied to producers when they’d asked how long it would take to turn in a draft.

So I’d broken my own rule many times — in ways that I’d justified on the basis that it didn’t really matter. Or they didn’t understand. Or they were wrong. Much easier to say yes and then apologize. To say wow, I love that chartreuse mohair coat (that makes you look like a caterpillar.)

But I knew it was wrong. And I’d certainly taught the little girl looking up at me that it was wrong and she should never do it. And she never had — or so I’d thought. Until that moment when I found the toy and realized that she had broken our contract. And that I couldn’t automatically trust what she told me.

Trust. It’s so fundamental. Not just to our emotions and our psyche. But to our ability to function.

And this is why this past week — these past four years — have been so damaging. Because somehow in this age of data - when we can measure everything, when we can “fact check” almost instantaneously, when whole organizations exist to debunk rumors - suddenly it’s become kosher to lie.

Or at least so it would seem. Since the liars out there seem to be able to do so without facing any consequences.

Unless of course you count the violence in the streets and the surging pandemic and the wounds to our democracy.

U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, posed an important question this week. “What has driven such a large portion of Americans to this cataclysmic edge - this barren, apocalyptic precipice where facts are non-existent, democracy is secondary to cult, and mob violence is patriotic?”

I would argue that it’s this new “right to lie.” And not just lie to our friends who buy a bad coat or ask a nosy question. But lie to the public. Because that’s what’s causing almost all of the problems we are facing.

When someone in a position of trust — a public figure — lies to the public, it damages our country.

Because when you tell the public that a virus is under control and that masks and social distancing are unnecessary, the people who believe these lies won’t take the necessary precautions and will not only become sick but may infect others, forcing hospitals to triage care. And people will die unnecessarily.

And when you tell the public that you’ve won in a landslide and that anyone who says otherwise is “stealing” the election, the people who believe these lies are likely to do what you ask and go to the capitol and “fight like hell” to save your presidency. And people will die and the believers will get arrested.

And all of this could have been avoided, yes, if our president had told the public the truth. But also if the news media were required to report the facts. Note I say the news media and not media in general. Movies, television series, talk shows, “reality”- in other words fiction, is not held to that standard. But the news — whether it’s reported on CBS or Facebook — should be required to maintain journalistic standards and stick to the facts.

There used to be something called the Fairness Doctrine that required any broadcast company that licensed the public’s airwaves to present both sides of any argument. While this didn’t address general truthfulness, it did provide for two points of view on any one program.

This was opposed and finally beaten down by right wing radio who claimed it abridged their first amendment rights. And no less than President Obama has backed off the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine, lobbying instead for caps on ownership and more diversity in the awarding of licenses. And you might argue that with the success of MSNBC, perhaps we’ve achieved some sort of balance.

But I don’t think so. Instead I think this balkanization of points of view has only served to make both sides more extreme.

And no, I don’t think there’s an equivalency. Rachel may go on ad nauseum about any given subject — say Russia — nursing the resentments of her viewers, but while she may speculate, she does so based on verifiable information. Fox, meanwhile, promulgates misinformation on a daily basis, a habit that led many reputable sources to question its bona fides as a news outlet.

So there’s a difference. But there’s also a bigger problem.

As the documentary “The Social Dilemma” pointed out, these separate news feeds are serving to drive us further apart. Because if we can’t agree on the same facts because we aren’t aware of the same facts, we will never be arguing from the same basis. And we will never move forward.

What to do about this? For starters, support the reinstatement of some version of the Fairness Doctrine to be applied to all news outlets on any platform. At present, cable shows are given a pass as they are privately held entities that make no use of the airwaves and hence aren’t required to bow to the FCC. But they should be and so should online platforms.

Any organization purporting to share news should adhere to basic journalistic standards, i.e. truthfulness, impartiality, verification (fact checking and multiple sources) and accuracy.

Wouldn’t that be a welcome change?

Thank you so much for all your emails. Reach me at WelcomeToThePandemic

@gmail.com. And find me on Twitter at @epagenyc or on Facebook at ElizabethPage.