All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.
Florida’s electoral mishegoss lends itself to the exploration of an issue that receives no attention in the media and yet underlies virtually everything its members do. I speak to you, dear reader, of the Meaning of Truth.
Ever since Fox’s John Ellis began the mistaken media stampede for his cousin George W. Bush’s victory on election night, reporters, producers and executives have spun themselves silly trying to describe a situation that is ultimately an epistemological bottomless pit. There is no single “truth” about who won Florida. From the point of view of “institutional truth,” we began without clear rules or precedents for measuring the vote, whether they include dimple-counting, partially punched chads or butterfly ballots. I am convinced Gore carried the will of the people, but I’m guessing that Lady Katherine Harris Macbeth would rather contract rabies than accept my admittedly subjective interpretation. From the perspective of “brute truth,” however, the difference between the Bush/Gore numbers turns out to be so small that it will never exceed the count’s margin of error. What we are seeing, therefore, is not a process of objective measurement but a contest of raw power. The Democrats use the courts and the law. The Republicans rely on rent-a-mobs, partisan hacks and power-hungry allies in the state legislature and Congress. Guess which side is bound to win?
Our media coverage admits none of this, because it is committed to a fairy-tale version of truth and objectivity that separates “fact” and “opinion” but cannot fathom anything in between. When Tim Russert declared on November 26 that George Bush “has now been declared the official winner of the Florida election…and therefore he is the 43rd President of the United States,” he was making a statement that could not have been true when he made it. (Even Bush understood that he was only playing a President-elect on TV.) But the feared and celebrated Russert knew that his words were bound by only the narrowest definition of “truth.” He could always take it back later.
The attachment to the idea of attainable objective “truth” on the part of American journalism is partially responsible for its frequent brainlessness. As NYU’s Jay Rosen points out, “objectivity as a theory of how to arrive at the truth is bankrupt intellectually…. Everything we’ve learned about the pursuit of truth tells us that in one way or another the knower is incorporated into the known.” (Remember Heisenberg? Remember Einstein?) The famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey shed considerable light on this problem, with Lippmann arguing for a “spectator” theory of reality and Dewey arguing for a more consensual one, arrived at through discourse and debate.
The notion of a verifiable objective truth received what many intellectuals considered its final coffin nail in the form of Richard Rorty’s classic 1979 work, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. While the word true may have absolute correlations in reality, Rorty later argued, “its conditions of application will always be relative.” What was “true” in ancient Athens–that slavery and pederasty were positive goods–is hardly “true” to us today. As Rorty explains it, we call our beliefs “true” for the purposes of self-justification and little more. The point is not accuracy but pragmatism. Moreover, Ludwig Wittgenstein has taught us that the gulf between what “is” and the language we use to describe it is so large as to be unbridgeable. “Truth” may be out there, but there is no answer to a redescription, Rorty observes, “save a re-re-redescription.” Truth is what works.
Now, it’s possible to contest Rorty on any number of counts. I personally find him overly generous to the extreme relativism of antifoundationalists like Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. (The antifoundationalist perspective can be simplistically summarized by the famous Surrealist painting of a pipe by René Magritte beneath the words, Ce n’est pas une pipe.) But the argument itself cannot be avoided. Truth, as Lippmann never understood but Dewey did, is a lot more complicated than a baseball box score or a Johnny Apple New York Times news analysis. What is needed to evaluate whether a report is ultimately credible is not an endless parade of “facts” that may or may not be true but a subjective marshaling of evidence. Yet because the entire media establishment treats these questions as just so much mental masturbation, the standard definition of “fact” often turns out to be any given statement that cannot be easily disproved at the moment it is made. Hence, we frequently see journalistic accounts of the mood of an entire country or even a whole continent based on little more than the taxi ride from the airport.
A second byproduct of American journalism’s childish belief in attainable objective truth, Rosen notes, is the alienation it causes between journalists and intellectuals. In Europe the public profits from a two-way transmission belt between the world of ideas and that of reported “fact.” But here such exchanges are nearly impossible because, as Rosen puts it, “intellectuals familiar with the currents in twentieth-century thought just can’t deal with some of the things that come out of journalists’ mouths.” Such people, he notes, believe it “useless to try to talk with journalists” owing to their “naïve empiricism.” Still, the academy is also at fault, owing to its recent retreat into a Derrida/Foucault-inspired debate that admits almost no reality at all outside the text and does not even pretend to speak intelligibly to the nonspecialist.
In any case, George W. Bush may be our next President. But it won’t be because he outpolled Al Gore in Florida in any remotely objective sense. It will merely be because he might have, and we decided to call it “true.”
* * *
Congratulations to Ralph Nader on George W. Bush’s decision to appoint Andrew Card, formerly the auto industry’s top antienvironmental lobbyist, to be his Chief of Staff. Just a few more appointments like this one, I suppose, and the revolution can begin in earnest.