Is there an 'epidemic of lying' in U.S.?

By Richard N. Ostling

Associated Press

Following the scandal over New York Times reporter Jayson Blair's fabrications, San Francisco Chronicle culture critic Steven Winn offered a pessimistic view of the state of the union on truthfulness.

The Blair affair exposed "an open secret: America's epidemic of lying," Winn asserted.

If so, there's a second national epidemic of schizophrenia, since Americans continually demand public shrines to exalt the Ten Commandments and one of those laws commands:


"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor" (Exodus 20:16).

The most prominent Commandments campaigner, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, placed a Decalogue monument in the state judicial building and has appealed a federal court order to remove it on grounds of church-state separation.

Conservative Judaism's official Bible commentary says in the original context, "false witness" referred to judicial proceedings. If so, that one commandment seems apt for a courthouse, if not necessarily those about worshipping only the one God or keeping the Sabbath.

Almost everyone agrees that "false witness" extends well beyond courtroom perjury, however, and covers all forms of deceit.

A standard Orthodox Jewish commentary, by Britain's one-time Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz, says that God's law forbids "all forms of slander, defamation and misrepresentation, whether of an individual, a group, a people, a race or a faith."

Similarly, the 1992 "Catechism of the Catholic Church" extends the commandment to duplicity, dissimulation, hypocrisy, boasting, bragging, calumny and even falsehood in art.

But the heart of the matter is simple lying. The catechism says this means "misrepresenting the truth in our relations with others" or making a public "statement contrary to the truth." It also cites St. Augustine's ancient definition, "speaking a falsehood with the intention of deceiving."

The catechism explains that such actions are forbidden as a sin against the God who is truth and a sin against neighbors and society that depend upon veracity. As many have observed, civilization cannot exist unless most peoples' word can be trusted most of the time.


Which makes Winn's claims sobering.

He expressed no religious outrage but employed biblically freighted words. (The "covenant" between a newspaper and its readers is "sacred." Violations of that bond are a "desecration" of public trust.)

"We live in a society of widespread duplicity and deceit," he contended, and American culture is "reveling in falsehood."

For example? Television "reality" shows "could hardly be more contrived." Various authors blur fact and fiction or plagiarize. He also listed insider trading, Catholic sexual abuse cover-ups, doctored photos, art forgeries and -- possibly -- Bush administration justifications for the Iraq war.

His cynical conclusion was that it's difficult "to know anything for sure."

The Times and other major news outlets would disagree. They implicitly believe reporters and readers can actually know some things, treating truth-telling as a moral absolute and resisting the current intellectual fashion to dismiss the very idea of unwavering rights and wrongs.

Winn is not alone in his worries. The temperature-taking folks at the Gallup Poll say 77 percent of Americans rate the "overall state of moral values in the United States today" as "poor" or "only fair," while 22 percent respond with "good" or "excellent."

Moreover, 67 percent think the nation's morality is getting worse while only 24 percent think it's getting better. Those numbers were similar a year ago.


The poll was conducted just after the first revelations forced Blair to resign.

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