Post-Truth or Post-Trust?

Curator's Note

Just the other day, a student of mine asked how I made the decision to study journalism in college. The question took me back to my young, idealistic self. I wanted to be a journalist because I wanted to be a watchdog for the American people. My dad was drafted and sent to Vietnam as a result of Lyndon Johnson’s “misinformation” about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. So I grew up with a sharp distrust for politicians and a deep reverence for investigative reporters like Woodward and Bernstein. Although I’ve become disillusioned with journalism over the years, my basic distrust for politicians has yet to be proven unwarranted. It never occurred to me that anyone would actually trust politicians. And I don’t mean this in any radical, survivalist, or conspiratorial kind of way. I just mean—well—look at the record. They haven’t exactly earned it, have they? Recall Ronald Regan who, years before comedian Stephen Colbert coined a term for it, described the Iran-Contra affair in terms of truthiness: “My heart and my best intentions still tell me that it’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.” The difference between then and now is that, back then, at least we could trust facts and evidence. Today facts and evidence lose truth-value as digital misinformation, “fake news,” or “alternative facts,” drown out veracity in public discourse. But even before the digital deluge, we had reason to question our faith in “fact.” Remember Colin Powell’s 2003 presentation of “evidence” to the United Nations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction? Incidentally, it was Powell’s “misinformation” about WMDs that sent my brother to Iraq. Are you seeing the pattern motivating my personal investment here? So in my mind, political lies aren’t new; I expect Trump to be a liar. What is new, however, is an inability to trust any content at all. For example, last month Buzzfeed decided to publish the 35-page Trump dossier with a series of careful disclaimers about the content’s veracity. In an opening monologue about the dossier, Stephen Colbert, Godfather of truthiness himself, said: “I don’t think it matters if this is true or not because the fact is; it’s out there…” As bizarre as this sentence sounds, he is right; the fact is, it is out there and the American public has become the unsuspecting jury of truth. Like we don’t have anything else to be doing. It’s this very burden of verification that has eroded our interest in finding “the truth.” We have simply lost our resolve; search costs are too high. So instead we seek what Daniel Kahneman calls “cognitive ease,” a general predisposition to information that seems true. It’s different from Regan’s (or Colbert’s) brand of truthiness, however, because we don’t necessarily believe it to be true in any meaningful way but we accept it because the difference doesn’t matter to us. And I think that is the real source of my sadness today: What I used celebrate as a healthy skepticism has evolved into an apathetic cynicism, or what I consider our current condition of post-trust.

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