Normally, one might hope this axiom would not need reiterating. Ideally, a critical corollary would go without saying as well: mendacity has steep costs. Unfortunately, as the last year has taught us, we live in times neither normal nor ideal.
America has been rocked by the “big lie” — the false notion that widespread fraud compromised the integrity of the 2020 presidential election in which Joe Biden clearly and fairly beat incumbent Donald Trump. Months later, the big lie’s distortive effects are still quite pronounced. A CNN/SSRS poll conducted last month and released last week found that 30 percent of respondents thought that Biden did not legitimately win enough votes to become president — including a whopping 70 percent of Republicans polled.
This is despite the fact that the 2020 race was arguably the most scrutinized in American electoral history. The official outcome was bolstered not just by closely-watched recounts across several key states but thorough once-overs in courts across the country, with both Republican- and Democrat-appointed judges turning aside dozens of frivolous legal challenges by the losing campaign.
That these mountains of evidence are meaningless to many of Mr. Trump’s supporters certainly stems from his own conspiracy-mongering. But the former president’s lies benefited from some reverberant echo chambers, from cynical GOP sycophants to right-wing media outlets that parroted Mr. Trump’s aggrieved falsehoods with little regard for the facts.
One of the loudest of those echo-chambers, however, recently changed its tune. The Trump-friendly outlet Newsmax was one of the strongest amplifiers of baseless claims about election-rigging and voter fraud — until the realities of a massive defamation lawsuit set in last week. The suit was filed late last year by Eric Coomer, a top employee of Dominion Voting Systems. Newsmax repeated baseless allegations about Dominion’s alleged manipulation of voting results — conspiracies cooked up by Mr. Trump’s inner circle and passed off as journalism to Newsmax’s audience. But the outlet finally set the record straight last week in a statement.
“Newsmax subsequently found no evidence that such allegations were true. Many of the states whose results were contested by the Trump campaign after the November 2020 election have conducted extensive recounts and audits, and each of these states certified the results as legal and final. … On behalf of Newsmax, we would like to apologize for any harm that our reporting of the allegations against Dr. Coomer may have caused to Dr. Coomer and his family.”
The apology for such egregious malpractice is appropriate, though it is also owed to the American people in general. And even then, it would be far too little too late. What of the damage done to the very fabric of our democracy, the poison of unnecessary polarization, the absorption of blatant lies into the bloodstream of our body politic? Mr. Coomer has since withdrawn the defamation claim against Newsmax, and so the outlet’s latent contrition has avoided an expensive day in court (though Dominion’s suit still targets other Trump allies). But the insurrectionary terror at the Capitol of Jan. 6, spurred on by exactly this sort of motivated detachment from the truth, is a wound on the heart of the republic that will not soon heal.
Newsmax might have spared itself from the costs of a defamation suit, but we all bear the price of discarding the truth. Wherever we might disagree, we must start from the shared ground of basic, substantiated facts, and resist those who would seek to undermine that foundation for personal or political expediency. Do not believe everything that you hear. Demand evidence for claims, especially extravagant ones. Take the time to differentiate between rumor mills and thoroughly vetted sources.
As the text of the First Amendment shows, the founders knew that good journalism is critical to the maintenance of a healthy democracy. Conversely, sensationalism and propaganda cloaked in journalistic robes compromises a shared value for the truth and the democratic institutions that depend on it. In Newsmax’s case, the truth only emerged because it threatened a mendacious outlet’s bottom line, but we still must pay attention, even if it makes us uncomfortable – especially if it does.
Truth must matter — more than politics, more than ideology, more than the silos built to shield us from it. If we don’t recognize this quickly, then dark days like Jan. 6 are bound to repeat.