Is there a difference between a true statement and a truthful one? For decades we have all watched as lawyers and politicians dissected words into such literal meaning that we finally reached the point of being told by a United States President that different groups might well have different meanings for a word as small as “is.” It was September 13, 1998, when President Bill Clinton told a grand jury he hadn’t been lying because, “It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” And many would argue that was the final crashing blow to honesty in the public media.
Today the news media has perfected the art of extruding the meanings of words to create impressions designed to mislead their audience in whatever direction leads toward their ideological position. Moreover, when the writer doesn’t possess enough command of the language to deflect a story with word meanings alone, the popular tactic has become simply distorting the truth by scattering a few false details to an otherwise true story or using the headline to create the first impression.
To illustrate that method, consider the following event:
A colorful city commissioner who’s policies were opposed by the local newspaper was walking through his neighborhood when he came upon a house on fire. As he approached he heard the moaning of the elderly gentleman who had fallen near the front door. The commissioner managed to force open the door and drag the nearly unconscious victim to safety. When the fire department arrived firemen made the victim comfortable and called for an ambulance while the auxiliary team offered the exhausted commissioner coffee and a doughnut.
The next day’s headlines read:
Commissioner Relaxes with coffee and donuts while neighbor’s house burns
Regardless of how accurate the paper reports the rest of the story, the headline has served its purpose – malign the commissioner. The paper then avoids reporting why the commissioner was even on the scene until at least the second paragraph. This insures fewer readers and gives the writer additional opportunity to invoke his opinion into the article mis-catagorized as news.
If or when someone complains on behalf of the commissioner the paper gets a second news cycle from the original headline by very easily making the case that the headline was true. They may even have a photo of the commissioner with a cup of coffee sitting in the yard of the burning house. The follow-up story defending the original headline (ie the article) then has the added benefit of discrediting a supporter of the commissioner and “proving” the paper is factual and – by implication – truthful. The fact is that it is true, just not truthful.