Monday, June 24, 2024

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HomeLife In the BerkshiresCONNECTIONS: Lies, damned...

CONNECTIONS: Lies, damned lies, and the facts

Today, dangerously, we argue fact as if it were one of multiple opinions. It saps our national strength and hampers our ability to problem-solve.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

We may think flacks, spin doctors and PR firms are modern inventions. In fact, the first PR professional was the son of a preacher born in Georgia in 1877.

Mr. Ivy Lee first bent the truth beyond recognition for the almighty dollar at the age of 24. It was 1901. The endeavor was so financially rewarding that, by 1905, he had his own public relations firm.

In 1914 Lee was hired by John D. Rockefeller and marched head-high into the “big time.” The press labeled Rockefeller “the malefactor of great wealth.”

Ivy Lee.
Ivy Lee.

“Malefactor” was gentler than “criminal,” but not by much. Lee was hired to make Rockefeller appear less like a greedy bully and enemy of the people and more like an inoffensive old grandpa who loved his fellow man.

Lee’s plan was to gather street urchins around Rockefeller and, when the cameras were ready, have the old man hand out dimes to the (presumably) hungry and (ultimately) grateful children. Was everything counterfeit but the dimes? You bet, but it worked.

Ivy Lee was eventually and inevitably called “Poison Ivy.”  He was also – inevitably – wildly successful. He continued to gloss over the truth, crafting his company slogan “Accuracy, Authenticity, and Interest.”

In the same vein, he professed that his advice to his clients was: “Tell the truth, because sooner or later the public will find out anyway.”

The quote, like the company slogan, was spread by Lee as self-promotion. However, Lee most often engaged in propaganda.

Lee is considered to be the father of the modern public relations campaign representing wealthy individuals, politicians and corporations.

Fox News and MSNBC – the fuming and fawning media – are not creations of the televised 24-hour news cycle. Two hundred years ago, newspapers made their political affiliations part of their mastheads.

The names of three newspapers in our area were the Hampshire Federalist, the Berkshire County Republican, and the Berkshire County Whig. They enthusiastically slanted the news in favor of their political beliefs and energetically slammed their political rivals. What their arguments lacked in clarity or sense, they made up for in heat.

The hot button issue of 1787 was adoption of the Constitution. In Pittsfield, the American Centinel urged adoption: “Thus will America…be all united, firm as one, and shall always seek the general good.”

Neither accurate nor predictive, the Centinel did articulate an ideal.

While proponents were painting images of utopia, opponents were sowing seeds of fear: if the states were united, the new country would crown George Washington king; once again, “we will be subjects not citizens.”

Fear-mongering to drive policy is old-school, but there is a stark difference between the 18th and 21st century news outlets: the difference is hypocrisy. Early newspapers were loud and proud in proclaiming their bias; they did not claim to be fair and balanced, or to be the only ones telling the truth. From the masthead to the last drop of ink, they told the reader that they were peddling their own beliefs.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a newspaper's masthead often declared its political affiliation.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, a newspaper’s masthead often declared its political affiliation.

In American politics truth rarely got in the way of a good story or a great campaign strategy.

Washington, D.C., 1904: commenting on his colleagues’ penchant for obfuscating, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “When they call the roll in the Senate, Senators do not know whether to answer ‘present’ or ‘not guilty.’ ”

Maryland, 1970: a politician running for office was confronted by a reporter. There was a marked disparity between what the politician had claimed and what proved to be true.

Reporter: “In light of the new information, have you changed your position?”

Candidate: “I have made up my mind; don’t bother me with the facts.”

New York Times, 2014: summing up a politician’s allergy to truth, Paul Krugman wrote: “There are Zombie ideas; ideas that the facts should have killed long ago, and yet they refuse to die.”

There is nothing new about presenting a and calling it news. Social media today and taverns two centuries ago were both centers of communication. Today, we log on to find out. Two hundred years ago, stagecoaches brought the earliest word of events outside Berkshire, locals brought the latest gossip, legal notices and minutes of town meetings were posted, newspapers and letters were delivered, the politicians campaigned, and a revolution was plotted in taverns.

Taverns were partisan: a patriot didn’t drink with a loyalist; a Federalist tavern would not serve an anti-Federalist. Liberals don’t tune into Rush Limbaugh and conservatives don’t read the Huffington Post. That is what will never change: people. In 18th century taverns or on the 21st century Internet, we like to listen to those who agree with us. The delivery of the message may have changed but the experience they seek is the same. People like to be told what they believe is true.

However, it is not all “same song second verse.” Here is how we differ from our antecedents: not everything was debatable. In the taverns and the newspapers, what they argued was opinion and what they agreed upon was fact. Today, dangerously, we argue fact as if it were one of multiple opinions. It saps our national strength and hampers our ability to problem-solve.

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