Don’t start believin’.
As I am writing this, television viewers are waiting to see Lance Armstrong finally confess to doping, a practice he denied for years; the interview, or confessional, or whatever it proves to be, continues tonight on the Oprah Winfrey Network.
Still unfolding is the story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o and his nonexistent dead girlfriend. In that story — first told by the Deadspin website — it is still impossible to sort out who lied to whom, let alone how someone could for years have a girlfriend who wasn’t real.
As head-turning as the Te’o story is, you’ll be doing a full Linda Blair impression after Googling “Sandy Hook truthers.” That will provide you links to stories about people who believe the Newtown shootings were, as Gawker.com’s Max Read reported, part of some larger conspiracy: that Adam “Lanza’s father was due to testify in hearings about a banking scandal, and the shooting was a distraction; Obama orchestrated the shootings to enact gun control laws” — or even “the Sandy Hook elementary shooting never happened at all. Or, that it did, in some way, but not as it was reported — there was more than one shooter, or not as many children died, or the parents we saw on television were actors.”
I read about this and thought, “Are these people nuts?”
As of Thursday morning, one video boosting such ideas had close to 10 million views on YouTube. And you just know some of the people watching it were convinced that the shootings were as fake as President Obama’s birth certificate.
Please, I am kidding about the birth certificate. But Superstorm Sandy happened, right? Then search “fake Superstorm Sandy photos,” online and you’ll find an array of cleverly manipulated images, none of them truly from the storm.
Did you get a call the other day from a charity needing money? Are you sure the call was from the charity? Are you sure of where your money went? Locally based telephone solicitor Infocision Management faced questions about the work it did for charities late last year and conceded that its fundraising scripts “were being reviewed and some modified.”
Check your email for the latest shocking revelation, usually accompanied by wondering, “Why isn’t the media reporting this?” Then go to Snopes.com to see that (a) the story in question has been around for years, (b) it has been reported and (c) it isn’t true anyway.
Assuming we know what the truth is, or isn’t.
I am not a crook.
I did not have sex with that woman.
And assuming we believe that telling the truth is even a good thing. Richard Nixon had to resign from the presidency but remained a respected voice on foreign-policy issues. Bill Clinton finished his term in office, became known as a humanitarian and was applauded by Hollywood’s elite during a recent appearance at the Golden Globes.
Jim Tressel, accused of lying to the NCAA and covering up misdeeds by his players, resigned in disgrace from Ohio State. But he is now an executive and rainmaker for the University of Akron (where I teach part time). He has recently popped up as a possible candidate for the presidency of Youngstown State, where he once coached, as well as the possible next president of UA.
And do we even know what the truth is anymore? MTV has a show, Catfish, devoted to relationships formed online — and how the real people are different in looks and even gender from their online versions. (A Notre Dame official brought up the show, and catfishing, during a news conference about Te’o.)
The Atlantic magazine’s website recently posted a positive report about the Church of Scientology. If you looked carefully, you would see a yellow banner saying the story was “sponsor content” — that the church had paid for it. But the piece raised even more eyebrows when it appeared that the comments — and, oh, could we have a conversation about online comments — were being filtered, with only pro-Scientology comments getting through. The Atlantic soon took the piece offline.
Then there’s Howard Kurtz, a writer for the Daily Beast and host of CNN’s Reliable Sources. In a chat with Capital New York, BuzzFeed reporter and former Daily Beast editor Kate Aurthur said Kurtz interfered with a planned (but eventually spiked) Beast story about gay news anchors; he emailed a top Beast editor his concern that the story was about then-closeted CNN star Anderson Cooper, who like Kurtz worked for CNN.
Aurthur saw a huge conflict of interest. Kurtz, contacted for comment by Politico, said the story was “offensive and absurd.” But Politico said, he “acknowledged sending the email.”
Which makes me think Aurthur was neither offensive nor absurd. But that’s an opinion. Much as we might want to believe otherwise, opinions are not the same as facts. Checking the facts, as Deadspin did about Te’o, is a way of sifting truth and lies. Only too often now, it seems that we do not care whether something is true or not, as long as it fits our notions of right and wrong. Buzz Bissinger, who defended Armstrong until very recently, wrote in the Daily Beast that “in trying to defend Armstrong and still insist he was a hero, I had to defy obvious reality.”
Consider election season, with misstatements across the board. Much as Deadspin checked for the facts in Te’o’s story, news organizations tried to find the facts and falsehoods in candidate comments. Yet that campaign, and our whole pondering of truth and lies, may have been best summed up by a Mitt Romney associate.
He proclaimed: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.