Fox News anchor Chris Wallace spoke recently at Washington’s Newseum for a forum entitled, “Celebrating the First Amendment.” Wallace said that he is frequently thanked by random approaching strangers for being “fair” and “a voice of reason” in the news. There was a time not so long ago, Wallace laments, when such approbations would be gratuitous, when fairness and reason were the minimum qualities reporters possessed of a necessity just to keep their jobs. It is a dolorous commentary on the times that fairness and reasonableness have become standout virtues.
What Wallace doesn’t say – because he really does want to keep his job – is that such qualities are rare at Fox News, rarer still since the departure of Shep Smith. While it’s true that Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and the Trump-licking sycophants at “Fox and Friends” are each listed as “opinion hosts,” they share with Wallace the same logo of the same network that props up the depravity of their steeply biased anti-truth conspiracy-mongering message. The defend-Trump-at-any-cost agenda at Fox News contrasts pathetically with their previous agenda to take-down-Obama-with-anything-they-could-find, no matter how petty. While I am glad that Chris Wallace and people like him, including Judge Andrew Napolitano, exist at Fox News, I am saddened that the son of Mike Wallace – who spent his life at a network that gave us truth-defending giants like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow – is content to remain at Fox, where a child-raping thief and a traitor gets a pass, but God help you if you ever wear a tan suit.
But it was in the course of his speech that Wallace tells us how the four star admiral who headed the team that captured Saddam Husein and took out Osama bin Laden put his finger on the greatest threat to America in the twenty-first century. “Back in 2017,” Wallace said, “he [Donald Trump] tweeted something that said far more about him than it did about us: ‘The fake news media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.’ After that statement a retired admiral, Bill McRaven, a Navy SEAL for thirty years … said, ‘This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.’”
McRaven is right, it is democracy’s greatest threat, and I am coming to understand that many Americans don’t fully understand why. It is certainly true that Trump’s agenda is simple, but that is merely because Trump is a stupid man and simple is all that he knows. Trump discredits much of the news media for the easily comprehended reason that the news media reports his misdeeds and he wants to cast doubt on their credibility. The more doubt he casts the less potent their message and the less damage it does to his popularity and his chances for reelection. But Trump doesn’t care about the long term damage this strategy inflicts (or he wouldn’t if he understood it). But it is a fact that when a lie is repeated over and over, many people begin to believe the lie. Indeed, the more a lie is refuted the more credibility the lie inherits, because impressionable people begin to wonder if maybe there is something to the lie after all.
The ultimate victim is our ability to discern what is knowable. When people begin to doubt everything they hear or see or read they lose their capacity to reason. Fact built upon fact is how we construct truth. It is the bedrock of the Enlightenment. It is the foundation of science and it is at its most fearless and effective in its ability to recognize its own misstep and make corrections accordingly. Truth and our capacity to recognize truth, because it originates in proven and trusted sources, explains why you are reading these words on a computer screen and not on a banana leaf or the flat side of a rock. The power of truth can be found in our sophistication. It is its own best evidence. When we destroy that truth we destroy civilization itself.
We ought to be alarmed that millions alive today believe that elements of the American government murdered 3000 of its citizens on September 11, 2001, or that we never went to the moon, or that “chemtrails” are used to poison us, or that the earth is flat. Our ability to think is under assault, and belief in rubbish like those things and many others is the direct result of that assault. We marvel at how easily fooled and gullible low-information Trump supporters are, but are we much better when we subscribe to such unfounded tripe?
This week we, as a society, let a president of the United States get away with mocking a sixteen year old girl for trying to save our precious home from a destruction predicted by science. That’s the same science that gave us our computers and our microwave ovens and our television sets. But no, millions of us prefer to believe a quasi-literate child-raping buffoon who proclaims without evidence that science is wrong. That ought to make us pissed off. That ought to make us proclaim loudly and firmly for the side of truth. That ought to raise our standards for evidence in what we believe and what we reject. Only you and I can rescue our species from its destruction by its own hand. Only you and I can prevent the final death of truth.