We are in the midst of a tragic period in American history—one in which falsehood has increasingly come to dominate our public discourse, and in which the bedrock values of honesty, transparency, accountability, and integrity we once took for granted have been steadily eroded. But if truth is under siege, with our national commitment to integrity eroding and the ranks of our legacy media having shriveled, it’s also clear that new generations of global truth-seekers are rejiggering “the possible” and holding those in powers accountable.
In 1917, Senator Hiram Johnson famously said, “The first casualty when war comes is truth.” That was certainly the case a half-century later, as the Johnson administration’s foray into Vietnam was characterized by ruthless and excessive secrecy—a prolonged military campaign that sidestepped the informed consent of the nation, corrupted the government’s internal decision-making ability, and circumvented the central tenet of self-government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
Governmental dishonesty in regard to the Vietnam War led, indirectly, to the proudest victories of an aroused and vigilant press corps: publication of stories based on a top-secret history of the war that revealed wholesale deception and incompetence, and ongoing revelations about a White House campaign of secret and illegal activities that would force President Richard Nixon from office. Together, these scandals would set a high-water mark in the struggle between political power and democratic values.
In spite of the understandable yearning to think and talk in “post-racial” terms, the notion that racism in our society is now dead remains an American delusion. Unfortunately, in the decades since the height of the civil rights movement, the majority of Americans, their elected representatives, and the national news media have moved on, as if they’ve collectively decided that the problems of ethnic poverty and discrimination either have been solved or perhaps are unsolvable.
The United States has a long history of helping to depose foreign governments, often for the benefit of US commercial interests operating in those countries. This track record contradicts our self-image as a reluctant warrior—a powerful but peace-loving nation that enters other people’s frays only when attacked or in imminent danger. But as with race, the disconnect between our vision of ourselves and the reality of our behavior is too painful to acknowledge, so we ignore it, sacrificing truth in the process.
The cigarette companies’ decades-long cover-up—blowing smoke about their lethal, addictive products while knowing they were causing death and suffering—also has been the modus operandi of numerous other industries: they’ve skillfully manufactured uncertainly and thwarted regulation while raking in the cash from their asbestos, pesticides, and other mortally dangerous products, their deadly deceptions implemented by soulless law firms, PR practitioners, and earnest-sounding front groups.
A series of intense financial pressures has slowly decimated the television news business, forcing conscientious reporters to the sidelines, while the shortsighted greed and increasing corporatization of the American newspaper industry have more recently led to a dire downward spiral in the quantity and quality of independent journalism. As a result, the quest for truth—an essential element of the human condition—has become more marginalized than ever before in our recent history.
What possesses someone to intensely scrutinize a single subject for months or years in search of information that is secret, impenetrable, covered up, or otherwise obscured? Why is the investigative reporter willing to accept rejection by scores of possible sources, physical threats, financial and legal repercussions, and almost universal calumny in pursuit of what Carl Bernstein calls “the best obtainable version of the truth”? In my case, at 60 Minutes and elsewhere, it was a bullheaded determination not to be denied, misled, or manipulated.
The Center for Public Integrity, founded in 1989, was envisioned as a kind of journalistic utopia—a nonprofit alternative to the traditional commercial media that would be unfettered by time and space limitations, and untrammeled by the power of corporate or government interests bent on burying the truth. A quarter-century later, the Center and its peers are the backbone of a new journalistic ecosystem that’s providing a potent counterweight to the ever-shrinking ranks of reporters and other disturbing trends unfolding in American media.