Truth or Consequences: Why Our Messages Are Going Unheard

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'When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion,' Walter Lippman wrote.
'When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion,' Walter Lippman wrote. Credit: Pirie MacDonald/Public domain
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Walter Lippmann may not be a name known to many, but this two-time Pulitzer Prize winner was one of early 20th century's most celebrated journalists, as well as a political observer and social commentator. What makes him so interesting now, more than 40 years after his death, is the relevance he brings to this year's presidential election -- and, by extension, to the future of advertising and public relations.

Coiner of the terms "stereotype" and "cold war," Lippman had a view of democracy and public opinion that was shaded by his criticism of journalism, which he saw as being, at times, either biased or factually deficient. Journalism's influence, he suggested, coupled with his belief in the public's disinclination for thoughtful assessment of complex issues and an inclination to respond emotionally, resulted in a consistently flawed public opinion.

In his 1955 book, "Essays in the Public Philosophy," Lippmann wrote: "When distant and unfamiliar and complex things are communicated to great masses of people, the truth suffers a considerable and often a radical distortion. The complex is made over into the simple, the hypothetical into the dogmatic, and the relative into an absolute."

Undoubtedly, Lippmann would have believed we are living in a post-factual time. Post-factual because so many people do not think to question. Post-factual because so many people do not wish to question. Post-factual because so many people do not choose to hear messages they find disagreeable. And post-factual because so much of the information conveyed is characterized -- rightly or wrongly -- as insufficient, incomplete, inaccurate and biased. It is this post-factual circumstance that results in a post-truth reality where facts no longer persuade as they once did and authority figures are no longer trusted as they once were. The time has come when the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan's well-known quip, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," seems other-worldly.

In this post-truth reality where claims of "evidence to the contrary" are shouted daily, we find ourselves flabbergasted by so much of the presidential contest. Be they the relatively smaller things: "I don't think the public really cares about my tax returns," or, "I didn't think news of my pneumonia would be 'that big a deal.'" Or the relatively larger things: A recording of Donald Trump speaking of his own attempt to bed a married woman while his third wife was pregnant, or the hacked emails of the Hillary Clinton campaign that reveal much more than the candidate would choose the public to know.

All of this, of course, does not occur in a political vacuum. As the American public becomes either more inured with their acceptance of pervasive institutional dishonesty or more frustrated in their attempt to obtain a higher standard of public discourse, the mood further darkens the arena in which all other messages -- advertising and public relations messages included -- must perform.

Since Watergate (I choose that as a starting point because it exists in the awareness, if not the actual life experience of most of today's eligible voters), tens of millions of American's have come to believe it's been downhill as regards truth from those who govern us, those who educate us, those who heal us, those who entertain us, those who minister to us and those who inform us. The result is a concomitant loss of respect in those traditional sources of inspiration, moderation and information. This loss of respect, this loss of credibility, will take its continuing toll, not just on the political process and system, but also on commercial messaging. We are not exempt; we haven't been for a very long time.

When Vance Packard's "Hidden Persuaders" appeared in 1957, the skeptics pounced. And that was a time when American consumers were giving the advertising business -- and all of our recognized, trusted institutions and enterprises -- the benefit of the doubt. But much has changed during the ensuing 60 years. In 1965, Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at Any Speed" indicted the Chevrolet Corvair as "The One-Car Accident." It's gotten worse since, with far too many other jarring, disorienting revelations about the products or services people once believed trustworthy.

There is no adequate shortlist, no end to the "you've got to be kidding" roster of shameful corporate contrivances. From the multi-decade addiction of the tobacco industry to information falsehoods to the relatively recent and astounding VW diesel scandal, untruths keep on coming. Just weeks ago, The New York Times revealed that "The sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to play down the link between sugar and heart disease and promote saturated fat as the culprit instead," which was quickly followed by a story about Wells Fargo and the corporate culture that caused 5300 employees to create over 2 million phony customer accounts.

Believing in something without evidence is not scientific; it is not even logical. But it is human. We see it in the debate over global warming. We see it in the denial of evolution. We see it in the abundance of check-out counter tabloid exposes and Snopes.com "urban legends." We are all too willing to believe the flimsy, and disbelieve the substantive. That will make it increasingly difficult for anyone to convey messages that will be deemed credible.

For those of us in media -- particularly news, advertising and public relations -- it will mean that the acceptance of what we say will be dependent not on the merits, but on the acceptability of how we say it. If we no longer have moral authority with the receivers of our messages, then we must regain that status by applying diligently the highest possible degree of truthfulness, accuracy and transparency.

Walter Lippmann wrote something in "Liberty and the News" (1920) that applies clearly to the state of our presidential politics and the conundrum faced by the electorate: "There can be no liberty for a community which lacks the means by which to detect lies." I suspect that were Lippmann alive today, he would also say, "There can be no credibility in a marketplace which lacks the inclination to believe."