WILLFUL DETRACTION VS.
“What is truth?”*
In my novel, My Brother’s Keeper, I interpret his feelings differently. I credit the governor of Judea with a kind of wistful ambiguity. There he was, trying to govern according to the will of Caesar in the midst of dangerously shifting political currents and a lack of clarity as to what Caesar’s will might be on any given concern.
If my take is correct, then poor old Pontius was struggling very much like the rest of us: weary with the world’s hypocrisy and self-interestedness, trying to discern what’s true and act appropriately.
This I can understand. After the wearying vilification heaped on Donald Trump throughout 2017 — as discussed in my last post — I feel a bit wistful myself.
Unfortunately, there appears to be no letup in sight.
The new year has opened with a promotional blast for a new book that purports to tell the real story of Trump’s election and the early days of his presidency, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.
It has set off a predictable Trump tweet storm, The Donald claiming that the work is…
“Full of lies, misrepresentations and sources that don’t exist.”
In fact, several individuals quoted by author Michael Wolff deny ever having said what the book attributes to them.
For instance, Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called the claim that he had warned Trump about surveillance by British intelligence agents “categorically absurd” and “simply untrue.” Similarly, former Vogue editor, Anna Wintour, has said it’s “laughably preposterous” that she asked Trump to appoint her ambassador to the United Kingdom.
On top of these denials, Michael Wolff himself admitted in the book…
“Many of the accounts of what has happened in the Trump White House are in conflict with one another; many, in Trumpian fashion, are baldly untrue.”
That gratuitous slap at The Donald aside, Wolff presents what would normally be considered a journalistic weakness as a particular virtue of his writing approach…
“These conflicts, and that looseness with the truth, if not with reality itself, are an elemental thread of the book.
“Sometimes I have let the players offer their versions, in turn allowing the reader to judge them. In other instances I have, through a consistency in the accounts and through sources I have come to trust, settled on a version of events I believe to be true.”
Wolff seems to be breaking new ground in documentary literature — pioneering a style one might call journalism by equivocation.
As noted by Business Insider, other journalists have “urged caution” in accepting Wolff’s account, since the claims he makes are at variance with “their own knowledge of the Trump White House.”
They’ve also expressed reservations about Wolff himself, in light of questions raised about his 2008 book on media mogul Rupert Murdock, a book which The New York Times (no friend of Murdock) called…
“a strangely alluring artifact, with huge gaps in execution and stylistic tics that border on parody.”
I haven’t read all of Fire and Fury — only a lengthy excerpt published by New York Magazine in which Wolff claims that Trump didn’t really want to be President and was shocked when he won the election.
Now, it could very well be true that, behind all his swagger and bluster, The Donald was unsure whether he could actually beat Hillary. But essayist Monica Showalter destroys the silly idea that his campaign was somehow fake. Writing on American Thinker, she observes…
“Trump didn’t run like some guy who didn’t want to win. He ran roughshod over seventeen Republican candidates during the primaries; often said things he shouldn’t have said; fought for Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania with superhuman energy in repeatedly huge rallies; and never gave up anywhere in the campaign, even with the most tremendous setbacks that would have shaken any weaker candidate out …. How does anyone deal with the constant negativity of the press and the push-polls that kept saying he was losing, day after day? Trump showed the strength and the guts to soldier on — and he won.”
Which brings us back to Pilate’s wistful query: “What is truth?” Or, in this context, what is a writer’s obligation to the truth when trying to advance a certain point of view?
I deal with this question regularly writing my blog posts. I’m pretty scrupulous about making it clear when I’m quoting someone else’s assertions, or citing allegations that aren’t proven, or when conflicts of opinion exist in a matter on which I’m taking a side.
But I’m sure I sometimes fail to achieve the transparency for which I strive. And I sometimes receive complaints when I do.
A reader named Barbara Ellen reacted strongly to my last post, in which I quoted Adolph Hitler’s famous dictum that people will believe a big lie when it’s repeated often enough. I was trying to demonstrate der fuhrer’s precept at work in the wildest criticisms of Donald Trump. But Barbara Ellen didn’t see it that way, and wrote…
“Seems to be, the opening of your article is equating President Trump to Hitler….
“Bill Kassel, I know by what you do as a journalist that you are trying the same tricks as CNN. You are carrying on the [same] divisiveness as Obama, and all of the MSM [mainstream media].”
Gee, I didn’t think that’s what I was doing. Guess I have to work a little harder on that transparency thing.
The question goes deeper, however. Michael Wolff’s book is undoubtedly critical of Donald Trump and the Trump Administration. But then, Donald Trump is now a political figure — the world’s most prominent political figure, in fact, the President of the United States — and so subject to appraisal and criticism by his fellow Americans.
The question is: Where’s the line between proper criticism, reflective of a citizen’s (or a journalist’s) legitimate responsibility of judgment, and the kind of denigration which The Donald has endured ever since announcing his intention to run for office?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church examines the question of criticism in light of the Eighth Commandment: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Paragraph 2477 states…
“Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury. He becomes guilty:
– of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor;
– of detraction who, without objectively valid reason, discloses another’s faults and failings to persons who did not know them;
– of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them.”
As I said, I haven’t read all of Michael Wolff’s book. The portion I did read suggests that Wolff intended to portray Trump and his people in a decidedly negative light, reporting allegations whose truthfulness and accuracy even Wolff himself didn’t trust. Additionally, he has admitted to a degree of deception in obtaining interviews and information for the book. He confessed to NBC’s Savannah Guthrie…
“I certainly said whatever was necessary to get the story.”
Plus, he has explicitly stated his opinion that Trump is not fit to be President and his hope that the book will bring Trump down.
So the issue of willful detraction does indeed present itself (probably rash judgment and calumny too). Though, Lord knows, Wolff is far from the only one indulging in it.
I don’t have the complete answer to Pilate’s question. But I would guess the answer begins with — at a minimum — trying to retain some kind of connection to reality when you’re making assertions about other people.
And to honor as well.
*(“What is truth?” – John 18:38)
I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on the question of legitimate criticism versus detraction. Please share them in the comments section below.
For all the flack Donald Trump has taken — and, granted, all the turmoil as well — his first year in office has seen some significant accomplishments, as indicated by this recent headline on Drudge Report…
…and one to Monica Showalter’s American Thinker piece in which she examines Michael Wolff’s claim that Trump really didn’t want to be President. The headline is brilliantly sardonic…
Gotta love it…
Here’s a report on Savannah Guthrie’s “Today Show” interview with Wolff in which he exhibits considerable equivocation about the book’s sources. His response to her probing about his credibility is particularly evasive…
“My credibility is being questioned by a man who has less credibility than perhaps anyone who has ever walked on Earth at this point.”
Not exactly a straight answer…