Saturday, November 3, 2012

Textscape of lies

The past several months have presented us with a series of narratives seemingly designed to unsettle the most committed optimists about human nature and the most idealistic defenders of professional and public communications. To say it has been a season of lies is an understatement. I recount just some "highlights" of the current textscape of deceit, fabrication, guile, and distortion.

Comfortably Smug

Shashank Tripathi
For sheer perversity, you cannot beat the most recent example of the digitally mediated prevarications of Shashank Tripathi, a 29-year-old hedge fund analyst and now former political campaign manager for Christopher Wight, candidate for New York State's 12th Congressional District.

We really do not yet know why, but under the presumably safe anonymity of his Twitter handle, @ComfortablySmug, Tripathi was tweeting actively to his 6,500+ followers on Monday, October 29, a stream of tweets about the progress and effects on New York City of Superstorm Sandy. Many of the tweets were, apparently, accurate. Some, notably, were not. Intentionally, not.

One tweet: "BREAKING: Con Edison has begun shutting down all power in Manhattan."  Another: "BREAKING: Governor Cuomo is trapped in Manhattan. Has been taken to a secure shelter." According to gantdaily.com, "The account user [Tripathi] also noted that all major lines of the New York City subways had been flooded and would be shut down for at least a week. He also added to the chaotic reports that the New York Stock Exchange was under water, which was not true. Several media network[s], including CNN and the Weather Channel, picked up the NYSE flooding narration after being reported on the National Weather Service's website."

New York Magazine reported that "[Tripathi] tweeted, falsely, that Con Edison workers were trapped in a facility, that the floor of the New York Stock Exchange had flooded, and that ConEd would shut down power to all of Manhattan."

Buzzfeed contributor, Jack Stuef, sleuthed out Tripathi's identity and reported: "For years, he's been a prolific commenter at NYmag.com and a popular conservative presence on Twitter." A minor media firestorm of outrage (and embarrassment) that mainstream media believed and repeated Tripathi's un-fact-checked tweets has been a footnote to the Hurricane Sandy saga.

Now, just a few days later, Tripathi has resigned from candidate Wight's campaign (his Wall Street employment status, if continuing, has been speculated about but not confirmed). The Manhattan District Attorney is considering criminal charges against Tripathi. We have also learned from Buzzfeed and other sources, as New York Magazine's post reports, about earlier non-Sandy-related @ComfortablySmug posts about his sexual exploits and ungenerous assessment of his purported sex partner. Class act.

Do we lie, because we can? For just the rush of it? To be a part of the big story?


Confidently Establishment

Mitt Romney
New York Times columnist and blogger, Charles M. Blow, wrote on the Campaign Stops blog, November 1st, about how "This election may go down in history as the moment when truth and lies lost their honor and stigma, respectively. Mitt Romney has demonstrated an uncanny, unflinching willingness to say anything and everything to win this election. And that person, the unprincipled prince of untruths, is running roughly even with or slightly ahead of the president in the national polls. . . . the list of Romney's out-and-out lies (and yes, there is no other more polite word for them) is too long to recount."

Blow then goes on to dissect the notorious Romney claim that GM and Chrysler are shipping American jobs to China -- and to demonstrate that there is absolutely no factual basis to Romney's assertion and to recount the largely ignored indignant, and apparently factual, denials, not just from the Obama campaign, but from GM and Chrysler.

Blow is shocked, just shocked, that "In fact, Romney seems to have decided that the only things standing between him and the White House are stubborn facts. . . . Unfortunately, there is some evidence that facts and the people who check them don't carry the same weight that they once did."  Blow sees Romney's behavior as just an indicator of "the [political] right's disinformation machine . . . [that] is, explicitly and implicitly, making the argument that facts (science, math, evidence) are fungible and have been co-opted by liberal eggheads. They have declared war on facts in response to what they claim is a liberal war on faith."

In Blow's November 3rd Times column, "Is Romney Unraveling?" he writes: "Evidence continues to emerge that Romney is one of the most dishonest, duplicitous candidates to ever seek the presidency. He criticized Obama for telling then-President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia that he would have 'more flexibility' to deal with sensitive issues between the two countries after he won re-election. . . . However, according to a report on Friday in The New York Times, Romney's son Matt recently traveled to Russia and delivered a message to President Vladimir Putin. 'Mr. [Matt] Romney told a Russian known to be able to deliver messages to Mr. Putin that despite the campaign rhetoric, his father wants good relations if he becomes president.' . . . This is the kind of hypocrisy that just makes you shake your head in disbelief."

Blow has been on the trail of campaign lying since last summer. Back on August 31st, shortly after the Republican presidential nominating convention, Blow wrote a column in the Times, "The G.O.P. Fact Vacuum," which quotes Mediaite's Tommy Christoper commenting on PolitiFact's analysis: "'Mitt Romney's statements have been judged Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire 46 percent of the time, versus only 29 percent for President Obama. In the Pants on Fire category alone, Romney is more than four times as likely to suffer trouser immolation that the president. Nearly 1 in 10 statements by Romney earned flaming slacks, versus 1 out of every 50 for Obama."'

Charles Blow wrapped up his August 31st column asking, "If we allow our leaders to completely abandon any semblance of honesty, what do we have left? When rancid disinformation stands in the space where actual information should be, what will grow? And how can a party that incessantly repeats the mantra that our rights were granted by God repeatedly violate a basic tenet of almost every religion: truth-telling? . . . We deserve better and should demand better."

One might wonder with Charles Blow, why don't we?

Hip-ly Fraudulent. (Fraudulently Hip.)

Jonah Lehrer
The Icarian story of youthful, hipster, brilliant media-genic Jonah Lehrer has been probed and dissected for months. Jim Romenesko broke the story on June 19th charging that Lehrer had re-cycled for his NewYorker.com blog Lehrer's own previous work that had been published in The Wall Street Journal. In June there were a handful of additional similar revelations about Lehrer's self-plagiarizing, and then in July the information broke that Lehrer was not just re-cycling his own work; he had also been just making stuff up.

Julie Bosman in the Times Media Decoder blog last July 30th provided a summary, "Jonah Lehrer Resigns From The New Yorker After Making Up dylan Quotes for His Book." Bosman sketched out Lehrer's unraveling -- a resignation from The New Yorker after being charged (apparently accurately) with fabricating quotations for his most recent book -- this was after he had already been publicly shamed, multiple times, for plagiarizing himself on and offline.

A more damning audit of Lehrer's less than truthful production then appeared a month later, on August 31st, by Julie Moos on Poynter.org, "Wired severs ties with Jonah Lehrer after investigator finds 22 more examples of plagiaism, recycling," Poynter and other outlets published excerpts of an investigation commissioned by Wired magazine and conducted by NYU journalism professor and experienced science journalist, Charles Seife.  Seife himself wrote at Slate.com, "I examined 18 out of several hundred [of Lehrer's] postings [at Wired.com]; most were chosen by Wired.com editors as suspect, others were chosen by them randomly, and I selected a few additional blog posts to ensure that the sample wasn't entirely under control of Wired.com editors. In this sample, all but one piece revealed evidence of some journalist misdeed. . . . Lehrer has been recycling his material for years; he was doing it in 2008 and probably even earlier. It's amazing -- and disturbing -- that it took so long for anyone to notice."

Fast forward to November. New York magazine publishes a feature by Boris Kachka, "Proust Wasn't a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer." Kacha rehearses the now-familiar timeline of the Lehrer fall. Kachka provides some biographical color, some of which suggests we should have sympathy for Lehrer, but much of which also rather bluntly portrays a despairing poseur unmasked: "a desperate Lehrer finally managed to reach Moynihan [Michael Moynihan, a freelance writer and Bob Dylan enthusiast, who had had suspicions and confirmed that Lehrer fabricated Dylan quotations for his best-selling book, Imagine]. Didn't he realize, Lehrer pleaded, that if Moynihan went forward, he would never write again -- would end up nothing more than a school-teacher? The story was published soon after. That afternoon, Lehrer announced through his publisher that he'd resigned from The New Yorker and would do everything he could to help correct the record. 'The lies,' he said, 'are over now.'"

Kachka's feature, however, moves beyond the narrative of the Lehrer's exposure to reflect on 1) the difficulty of writing about advanced scientific work in ways that can be understood by the general public (When does simplification become dumbing-down? When does dumbing-down become divorced from reality?) and 2) the temptation of big money and fame that accrues to popular purveyors of "the Insight" --"the dubious promised land of the convention hall, where the book, blog, TED talk, and article are merely delivery systems for a core commodity," the Insight, that can pay the author/celebrity very, very well.

When there is a market, a significant market, for "the Insight," need the Insight be true?

And then there is Lance.

Lance Armstrong

















It is hard to believe that human nature has changed so much. One can reasonably presume that people do not lie any more frequently today than our predecessors did. Boris Kachka's New York article about Jonah Lehrer cites behavioral economist Daniel Ariely's assertion that "We all cheat by a 'fudge factor' of roughly 15 percent, regardless of how likely we are to get caught; a few of us advance gradually to bigger and bigger fudges, often driven by social pressures; and it's only when our backs are up against the wall that we resort to brazen lies."

But "everybody lies" and "everybody has always lied" just does not satisfactorily explain away the bad taste left in our mouths after any discussion about Lance or Jonah or Mitt or Shashank. Somehow, we have the enduring suspicion that 21st century media has somehow fundamentally magnified the practice of deceit (kind of deception with special effects?). We reel between reactions -- the lies are just so preposterous as to be unbelievable; the lies are so common and unsurprising as to be banal.

Detail, Michelangelo's
Sistine Chapel ceiling,
the expulsion of Adam and Even
from the Garden of Eden
As I teach my college students the principles and best practices of public relations and marketing communications, I force them -- and myself -- to confront the textscape of lies as a high-risk and potentially catastrophically costly space. Lance, Jonah, Mitt, and Shashank -- just like the characters in the Garden of Eden story -- link the Lie to our Irreparable Loss, to our Self-inflicted Separations.