On Lying

pinocchioIs there a continuum for lying? Perhaps the “little white lie” that saves someone from humiliation is on one end of the continuum. Perhaps lying for personal gain is on the other end. But how much personal gain? Is 10 million enough to make the lie egregious?

Our Right to Free Speech

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The First Amendment to the Constitution.

In the First Amendment to the Constitution, Congress gave the American people a gift. The Constitution allows us all to say our peace, even if it conflicts with our government. And embedded in that gift is the Fourth Branch of Government, defined by Wikipedia as “a group that influences the three branches of government defined in the American Constitution (legislative, executive and judicial). Such groups can include the press (an analogy for the Fourth Estate), the people, and interest groups.”

The Press. The Fourth Estate.

By the law of our Constitution, they can report even news that is in direct conflict, or is inflammatory toward our government. They can investigate and break stories to the American people that influence our attitudes about the government.

But they cannot lie. No, this is not a law enacted in our Constitution. It does not say that the Fourth Estate must tell the truth. Quite frankly, truth is a wee bit elusive these days in media reporting.  Here’s where my continuum enters the picture. What is truth, as shared by the media?

They walk a fine line, in what they say, what they don’t say, their tone of voice, their biased selection of experts to provide insight.

We know that, or at least we should

We should also know that, because they walk a fine line, we have a responsibility to ask good questions, to read and hear different opinions, and to challenge what might be statements of truth that have an untold side. We don’t always do that; we fall prey to sound bites and channels that tell us what we want to hear.

How about a reporter that tells a personal story, claiming experiences that never happened. Experiences that, if true, would create an aura of adventure, courage and excitement. Where does this lie fall on the continuum?

NBC has launched an investigation into their star anchor’s claim to have been in a helicopter attacked by rocket propelled grenades. He also said he saw a body floating by his hotel window while reporting during Hurricane Katrina. He was staying in a hotel in New Orleans that stayed mostly dry.  Years before, he spent his teens saving puppies from fires. (At least, that is what the news media is reporting.) And he seems to change his story. It gets more dramatic the more he talks. Or, when challenged, he misremembers.

The popular anchor has removed himself temporarily from this nightly news program, saying that he has become a distracting news story.

We all do this. We all exaggerate. We try not to get caught, as Mr. Williams probably hoped he would not be caught.

What should be the consequence of a lie?

Let’s step back for a moment and ask “what is the consequence of a lie?” At a minimum, a lie diminishes credibility.

If our culture really does have a continuum of acceptable to unacceptable lies, where should we draw the line? How do we teach this to our children? How do we hold our employee accountable? How do we ever trust?

Those are not rhetorical questions.

Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear.”
― Edgar Allan Poe

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