There is a popular fallacy in politics, which I’ll call “truthiness” (with apologies and all due credit to Stephen Colbert). Too often these days, truth (or fact) is diminished into opinion, and, conversely, opinion is elevated into truth or fact. Clashing in the middle, they emerge as versions of the truth, given the weight of equal merit, and debated by advocates each side. It is what cable news has become in the race for ratings and advertising dollars. HBO’s new series The Newsroom takes on this, actually very dangerous, rhetorical fallacy in this week’s episode “I’ll Try to Fix You.”
“President Obama is anti-American.” Versions of this diatribe have been flying around in the land of wingnuttery from Rush to John Sununu (who should know better) to Mike Savage (who doesn’t). There is nothing to support this statement, this invective. And the fact that it is being debated by talking heads at all is beyond belief. There is not a whiff of even mild truth to this allegation, yet we see on cable news spokespeople from “both sides” of the non-argument debating the relative merits of this lie, lending to the lie, the aroma of truthiness.
The job of the news would be to call out this lie for what it is: a lie. There is no gray area here; there is no merit to the attack. But what happens when lies are given the status of truth, when absurd assertions are given any sort of merit at all, people begin to believe. It becomes indistinguishable from actual truth.
This is how Joseph McCarthy became powerful, destroying people’s lives with nothing but innuendo and armed with the power of subverting lies into fact. This is how Hitler managed to come into power. And it’s damned scary, especially knowing the ease with which rumor, innuendo and lies are spread virally via social media.
The Newsroom tackles this important subject by examining President Obama’s gun control record after being abeled as the “man who will take away your guns” and who will assassinate the Second Amendment. There is no truth to these assertions, but as fictional news anchor Will MacAvoy explains, every time Newt, Michele, or Rush say it to enthusiastic crowds or listening audiences, the GOP coffers are filled, and the “Hate Obama” chant gets louder. In fact, as Will points out, Obama’s gun control street cred is virtually non-existent, much to the chagrin of many on the Left. But the lie is out there; it’s polished with the sheen of truthiness, and virally spun into the ether of the Interwwebs.
The other big issue tackled in this week’s episode revolves around the assassination attempt on Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. When news breaks, facts come into the newsroom fast and furious with little time for sourcing. A network or someone on the scene reports and suddenly it’s all over the Twitter-verse as fact. It doesn’t matter that it’s unsubstantiated—a rumor spun in the chaotic aftermath of a horrible fatal shooting. If it’s out there, it’s real.
Will refuses to run with a widely broadcast “fact” that Rep. Giffords had been fatally shot. The report, originating with the usually reliable NPR, had already made the rounds of all the networks. Should ACN jump on the bandwagon and go with the NPR report? If they don’t, they risk falling behind on the race for the story—and might lose viewers to another network, at least that’s what corporate argues. But what if they’re wrong? Will takes the calculated risk to wait until there is confirmation from a reliable source, like the hospital. Pushed by the network, he still refuses, rightly, despite the corporate threat.
The mission of the news is to reveal truths and present facts—to report, to make people aware. It’s a sacred trust, and one upon which a free society relies in order to make informed choices. When the lines between truth and allegation become blurred, we can no longer rely on our press.
It’s too easy, especially these days, to create comfortable truths. Put enough half-truths and unsubsantiated facts together and you can dress them up into some version of the reality. Like proof of the existence of Big Foot, a story cleverly worked into the episode to juxtapose against the truthiness tension of Will’s newsroom.
The other storylines of this week’s episode also criss cross and weave around this theme. Last week, CEO Leona (Jane Fonda) threatened to destroy Will, making it easy for her to fire him. Creating truths out of half-baked innuendo (and slightly manipulating Will’s newfound self-righteousness), by the end of the episode, Will has been painted as an undesirable. Who would blame Leona for firing the sleaze Will MacAvoy has become. After all, the network’s integrity is at stake!
In a way, The Newsroom is a liberal fantasy series—an idealized vision of what the broadcast news should be, or could be if there were no real-life corporate consequences. We no longer live in a society where Edward R. Murrows are possible (or even probable). But for an hour each week, a girl can dream, can’t she?
The Newsroom airs Sundays on HBO at 9 PM.