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King: Truth is fine, but facts are better

POSTED: February 24, 2009 1:00 a.m.

"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

These words are found in the Gospel (John 8:32). They're also displayed in the lobby of CIA Headquarters in Langley Virginia.

In court we take an oath to tell the truth and nothing but the truth and can be charged with perjury if we fail to do so, but truth itself is elusive and subject to manipulation.

Personally, I prefer accuracy. Forget truth. Pay attention to detail. Look for references; check the source material.

Who said what, and can they prove it? We are living in the information age. If you really want to know something, as opposed to having your opinions stroked, you usually can find it.

We are living in the information age: the digital age, the wireless age, the age of computers and the Internet. It began in the early 1970s with a sharp increase in the creation, consumption and manipulation of information. Language and distance are no longer a barrier to images and ideas, and anybody can say almost anything.

Truly an age of miracles, but it's also a time when there is very little accountability and even less discernment when it comes to truth telling.
This is the era of the blog, an electronic shape-shifter that can be anything from a personal diary to a sophisticated political tool. And here freedom of speech often runs amok, because even when there are laws governing what can be said, the courts haven't yet decided how they apply to bloggers.

The media is everybody's whipping boy, and it's all too easy to dismiss news stories that tell us what we don't want to hear.

It's called bias, propaganda or a conspiracy, but print media still has to heed to certain standards of truth telling. Many magazines have fact-checking departments to see that they live up these standards.

Several years ago John McPhee wrote a book called "The Curve Of Binding Energy." It appeared first in the New Yorker as an essay and contained an antidote about a WW II Japanese incendiary balloon that floated across the Pacific and landed on a reactor at the Hanford nuclear site. A good story, and McPhee really wanted to use it, but he had heard it from a man who had heard it from someone else — he couldn't remember who and the magazine wouldn't let it go into print without verification.

The fact-checker worked right up until publication time and only at the last moment did she locate the site manager at the B- reactor who explained the balloon had not actually landed on the building, but on a high-tension line carrying power to the reactor.
This is what I mean by attention to detail.

Not every magazine is so assiduous and newspapers are even less so because of the immediacy of their job, but when their words go into print, there are literally thousands of critics ready to ferret out the smallest mistake and let them know about it. Just take a look at page 4 of any New York Times. No issue is without its list of corrections.

There are far fewer checks on the Internet, and none apparently on talk-show radio. As long as what is said is couched as opinion or entertainment, anybody is free to say just about anything.

The real problem occurs when errors or deliberate lies are sent electronically around the world and picked up by undiscerning individuals who confidently repeat and enlarge upon them thus creating even more errors and miscalculations.

Our country recently went to war based on faulty information. The fact-checkers either didn't do their job or were subverted by their own political bias. It doesn't matter which. The result is the same. Tens of thousands dead and billions of dollars of debt.

The nation's economic system is so complicated and convoluted that it's pointless to talk about truth, but if the Barney Medoff scandal is any indication, people and agencies that should have been paying attention to detail weren't doing their job.

Faulty reassurances were passed on as fact, and error was piled upon error, miscalculation upon miscalculation until the whole house of cards came tumbling down carrying with it a lot of innocent people.

Perhaps it's better to leave truth to the philosophers and concentrate on facts. Opinion is often nothing more than gossip.
Writers would rather be clever than truthful, and the public often doesn't know the difference.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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