Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Mayor Who Cried Wolf

One constant irritation with reporting the news is the bombardment of falsehoods, distortions and outright bullshit I’m exposed to by high-ranking officials who are old enough to know better.
I’ve interviewed politicians who see nothing wrong with lying or misleading reporters. I’m trying to figure out why this happens. When something is uncomfortable or controversial, when called upon the carpet to explain or extrapolate, politicians dodge questions and sling mud at the questioner.
Lately, with my beat, I’m discovering a city administration so protective of its secrets and so apt at sidestepping queries by the press and public, you’d think a corrupt and despotic regime uprooted itself from a Third World country and set up shop in New Jersey.
It’s frustrating and infuriating when a mayor insults your intelligence by telling you something untrue. It isn’t simply ignorance of the facts, but a willing attempt to obscure and hide the facts from public view.
Yet as a reporter and Fourth Estate scribe, I have to dutifully report the mayor’s statements objectively and without bias.
Hence, the condundrum.
The press has a professional responsibility to relate the news to the public. However, when your source is telling you something that you know is pure grade bullshit, how does this serve the public? You can't, after you quote the mayor, write, "The mayor is actually a fucking liar." That's bad form and irresponsible.
The public views the press as mistrustful of authority and cynical of power. I'm sorry, but if someone wants me to lie for them, that person doesn't think highly of me to begin with. I refuse to be an accomplice.
Unfortunately, recording and disseminating bullshit makes me less Bob Woodward and more Joseph Goebbels.
The mayor is an attorney by profession, so he’s skilled at wordplay and nimbly arguing his positions in court. He’ll turn the tables on any argument and make you look like you’re at fault, while ignoring what he doesn’t want to hear.
By controlling the message, he muzzles the messengers and turns reporting into propaganda.
Thomas Jefferson, in an 1785 letter to his nephew Peter Carr, extols the virtues of honesty and abhors lying: “It is of great importance to set a resolution, not to be shaken, never to tell an untruth. There is no vice so mean, so pitiful, so contemptible; and he who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world's believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”
The mayor’s attempts to sidestep accountability by ignoring pressing questions only hurts his administration and whatever legacy he wishes to leave. Full disclosure and honesty are the only ways he can salvage the little credibility he has in the public purview. By repeatedly lying and distorting the facts, the mayor fosters an environment where mistrust takes hold. Even if he tells the truth or is open and candid, people don't believe him because of the previous lies.
A politician who’s a serial liar isn’t a man of the people; he’s a man against the people. He has great contempt for those who put him in power and the greater public good takes a backseat to saving his own skin and protecting his intrests.

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