About 15 years ago I remember an incident in England in which the head of the Exchequer -- what we might call Secretary of the Treasury -- publicly denied that a certain prominent bank in London was near bankruptcy. Despite persistent rumors to the contrary, the bank, he said, was fiscally healthy and that there were no plans for the government to take it over. A week or so later, the bank failed. The doors were locked. The government took it over. People who had their savings in the bank were greatly inconvenienced, not to mention outraged that the government had lied to them.
After this happened the government official was asked by the press why he had lied to the public. As I recall, his answer was approximately as follows. It would have been immoral for me to tell the truth. If I had told the truth two weeks ago, there would have been a run on that bank. Chaos would have occurred. The bank would have totally collapsed before we could take it over and protect its customers' assets. A great many individuals would have hurt -- wiped out. No responsible government official would have done otherwise.
As it turned out, he was right. Minor inconveniences and a little righteous indignation for a few were a small price to pay for the general good of a smooth transition to government control and legal protection of everyone's interests. Such is the moral dilemma of truth and consequences.
Fascinating. There are, indeed, difficult times or circumstances when lying is morally superior to the alternatives. As Ollie North put it, When one must choose between lives and lies. If Nazi SS soldiers had asked you where Jews in your community were hiding and you knew, would you have told them the truth? Should you? Thus, truth telling is not a moral absolute. The decision of whether one should tell the truth rests entirely on the reasons, i.e., the motive behind it, given the larger context in which it perforce occurs.
Thus, it was with great interest that I read David Bloomberg's "REALLity Check" (The REALL News, July, 1996) in which he announced that he was canceling his subscription to Newsweek because both its editor and writer lied to the press and public about knowing the author of Primary Colors. Indeed, the author was Newsweek journalist Joe Klein. Is Bloomberg's reaction appropriate or merely a fit of decontextualized righteous indignation that fails to understand the larger issue?
Bloomberg is to be commended for his action because there was no justifiable motive whatsoever for lying about the authorship. As Bloomberg clearly put it:
When they were questioned about the ethics of the situation, they came up with all sorts of excuses, including one about it being 'entertainment,' as if this made it okay. [p. 8]
Thus, what offends is not the lying per se, but the banality of it -- as if betraying the truth and public trust is acceptable for trivial reasons, for entertainment. The only motives -- such as they were -- were personal, petty, and pointless, far beneath any threshold that could justify violating the integrity of the written and spoken word. Such pointless lying and lame excuses, especially by those whose professions and honor require the courage of truth, is, indeed, as Bloomberg put it, sad, sad news. Worse, it is pathetic. Worse, it is a sign of the times -- the flight from standards grounded in objective reality and the shallowness of character and poverty of reason to which such flight inevitably leads.
I have been a subscriber to Newsweek without interruption for more than 25 years. I, too, am canceling my subscription, not so much out of righteous indignation as from sullen disappointment.
Right on -- and write on -- Bloomberg!
While I was not caught up in the firestorm of protest of Joe Klein's lies about being the author Anonymous, I can understand the arguments against his actions. I have cancelled my subscription to Newsweek in the past -- for a brief time because of the proliferation of cover stories on celebrities -- but I came back to it because of the range of information it provides. Having subscribed to it initially since 1962, when I was 13, I have a hard time leaving it again.
That's no defense for Joe Klein, of course, so let's listen to a few excerpts from his explanation in Newsweek (A Brush with Anonymity, July 29, 1996): .... I was out covering the Republican campaign, telling my little white lies all along, speculating with friends about who might have done it, feeling uneasy .... The things said about me in the [press] release [by the New York magazine who hired a Vassar professor to analyze styles of suspects with a computer program] and the accompanying article were insulting, inaccurate and ridiculous.... Then I began to receive strong signals, via my agent Kathy Robbins, that Random House thought the author should remain anonymous. I had made the deal on that basis.... If I came forward now, my whole life would be different.... I'd be That Anonymous Guy.... all this was taking place in...two hours. I felt trapped, stunned. I was caught between two commitments, two different ethical systems -- book publishing and journalism. I must have changed my mind a dozen times... I [kept] my commitment to the publisher and my book.
It was a tough call. A lot of colleagues believe it was the wrong one. A lot of friends do. And they have a case. But I made the decision I made -- also justifiable, I believe -- and will have to live with the consequences. The worst consequences stem from my adamant denials of authorship....
Could I have handled this mind-boggling situation better? Sure. I've said some things I'll probably always regret. I'm sorry and horrified that my actions have caused pain for people at Newsweek. But the world really didn't need to know who Anonymous was. I've also learned this: what it's like to live as a politician. . . . Now that I've lived it, I hope I'll show a little more mercy on this page for the brave, frail fools and heroes who live our public lives. I hope you will, too.