In the age of fake news, confirmation bias, social media echo chambers, alternate facts and straight-up lies, the looming question is, "Who is responsible for truth?" Every day, prominent national media personalities, politicians and business executives demonstrate through their words and actions that they do not want to be responsible for, and many are not interested in, truth. So, who is responsible for truth?
I have been thinking about writing on this topic for several weeks and informed my editorial assistant, Christian Sagers, of my intent to write on truth this week. As my Thursday spun into unexpected meetings and my writing time evaporated, I told him to just hold my spot on the page. At 5 p.m., while I was in the middle of playing guest host on a national radio program, Christian brought me the proofs for the printed paper. At the bottom the page (in this very spot if you are reading this in the Sunday paper) was my picture and a placeholder headline. In red pen Christian had scrawled, "Truth will be written here."
The answer to my question about who is responsible for truth was right in front of me in bright red ink. I am responsible for truth.
Oprah Winfrey delivered a fiery commencement speech to the graduating class of the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism. In addition to wise counsel and humor indicative of such an occasion, she challenged the graduates to embrace, live and be the truth.
In the crescendo of her address, Winfrey implored, "So your job now, let me tell you, is to take everything you've learned here and use what you learned to challenge the left, to challenge the right and the center. When you see something, you say something, and you say it with the facts and the reporting to back it up. Here's what you have to do: You make the choice every day, every single day, to exemplify honesty because the truth, let me tell you something about the truth, the truth exonerates and it convicts. It disinfects and it galvanizes. The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption, our shield against greed and despair. The truth is our saving grace. And not only are you here, USC Annenberg, to tell it, to write it, to proclaim it, to speak it, but to be it. Be the truth. Be the truth."
I found it significant that Winfrey did not challenge the students to be "their" truth, as is popular among the moral relativists of today. She told them to be the truth.
Earlier this year, Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona spoke to the United States Senate about the state of truth in Washington. He said, "I will close by borrowing the words of an early adherent to my faith that I find has special resonance at this moment. His name was John Jacques, and as a young missionary in England he contemplated the question: 'What is truth?' His search was expressed in poetry and ultimately in a hymn that I grew up with, titled 'Oh Say, What Is Truth.' It ends as follows: 'Then say, what is truth? 'Tis the last and the first, For the limits of time it steps o'er. Tho the heavens depart and the earth's fountains burst. Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst, Eternal … unchanged … evermore.'"
William George Jordan powerfully made the case for truth in 1902: "Truth can stand alone, for it needs no chaperone or escort. Lies are cowardly, fearsome things that must travel in battalions … A lie may live for a time, truth for all time. A lie never lives by its own vitality; it merely continues to exist because it simulates truth."
Each of us has a responsibility for truth, to speak it, find it, promote it, act on it and even defend it. We should also recognize we have an equally significant responsibility for how we speak the truth. Someone wisely suggested that we can talk about any truth as long as we understand that how we speak about it matters. I have heard the same truth from the arrogant and the angry as well as the humble and courageous — with vastly different results.
I should also add that when we speak the truth is also important. Few things are more jarring than a truth spoken at the worst possible moment. The I-told-you-so truth, while still truth, does little to elevate others, create space for learning or improve a situation. Hitting people over the head with truth in the heat of an argument is contrary to the nature and power of truth.
Jordan posited that our individual responsibility for truth rests on four pillars — the love of truth, the search for truth, faith in truth and a determination to work to advance truth.
Each of us is responsible for truth. We need a greater commitment to truth throughout the world and particularly on the worldwide web.
In the space of this weekly column, I am committed to live up to the challenge of my wise-beyond-his-years colleague: "Truth will be written here."