“The Chinese government will not in whatever form engage in commercial theft…” Mr. Xi said. (NYT)
“The Chinese government will not engage in commercial theft or encourage or support such theft by anyone,” Xi said. (USA Today)
All three quotes were reported from the same speech given by Mr. Xi to business leaders in Seattle on Tuesday. The variations conceivably could arise from different translations of Mr. Xi’s remarks from Mandarin into English. But no matter the exact language, the message is clear.
And that message is: It no longer matters if you say demonstrably untrue things to the American public or the American media.
It’s a lesson that a majority of American politicians — especially presidential candidates — seem to have grasped already. The key objective is to get your message across, and sometimes the most effective way to do that is to lie, and then to have the American media repeat the lie to their audiences.
In journalism school back in the 20th century we were taught that fairness and balance required simply reporting, as accurately as possible, what someone said. If we as reporters knew, or even had a hunch, that the speaker was lying, we quoted his or her words anyway, and then found someone else to go on record to offer a contrary quote. In a best-case scenario there might be time to “check it out” before publication, and we were expected to do so.
But that was when it was a 24-hour news cycle. In these days of perpetual digital deadlines, the original untruthful quote is instantly published and replicated to a vast audience. Very rarely do reporters demand on the spot that the speaker back up the statement. Very rarely do editors refuse to publish a statement until it is verified. (Very rarely these days are there even editors.) In a few cases, someone might “fact check” the statement after it has already been disseminated.
The problem is that people are lying so much, and so extravagantly — I’m talking to you, presidential candidates and politicians — that a fact-checking fatigue sets in. The lie, repeated often enough, becomes the narrative. The fact-checking becomes background noise.
Even in cases where the lie is confronted, and proved demonstrably false — I’m talking to you, climate change deniers, Obamacare haters, weapons-of-mass-destruction apologists, Planned Parenthood video vigilantes, anti-vaccine valetudinarians, et. al. — a rebuttal of “politically motivated!” or “the facts are lying!” has proved effective.
So what is a reporter to do? The modus operandi seems to be to quote the lie as accurately as possible, get it in front of the most eyeballs possible, and then hope that there will be time later on for someone to fact-check it. But by then people will have glommed on to it and passed it along to their Facebook and Twitter followers, and the shitball is now rolling downhill, gathering mass and momentum.
It is unrealistic to expect media organizations to simply not abet the politicians in propagating their lies and distortions. Outrageous statements drive ratings; how else to explain the popularity of Donald Trump?
So, a modest proposal: Immediately add the phrase, “… although (speaker) did not / was not able to / offer any evidence to support his / her statement.” This presupposes that the reporter is willing to challenge the speaker on the spot, which, although unlikely, is at least not an absurd request, and one that is congruent with the tenets of journalism.
President Xi’s assertion that China is shocked — shocked! — that anyone would accuse it of commercial espionage is the howler of the year. But I am unable to provide facts to support that assertion.
“Besides, as the vilest Writer has his Readers, so the greatest Liar has his Believers; and it often happens, that if a Lie be believ’d only for an Hour, it has done its Work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…” — Jonathan Swift, 1710