In my media column in the current edition of The New Criterion, I have occasion to mention the advertising blitz with which The New York Times greeted the new Trump administration. It appeared to me to have been based on Times columnist Jim Rutenberg’s conceit of himself and his colleagues as a brave little band of paratroopers called on to defend what he calls "the realm of the true" from — well, from "the hyperpartisan debate," though it was a debate which the Times itself, at his urging, had already joined as one of the partisans. I had thought that the tide of e-mailed appeals — all based on some such formula as (to paraphrase) "We love truth! Don’t you love truth too? Click here to get more truth than you will know what to do with" — was finally ebbing when, over the weekend I got another, this one from "Times Insider" featuring a photo of a tray full of pin-on buttons over the caption: "Buttons adorn the tables in The New York Times’s cafeteria." The buttons read: "Truth. The alternative is a lie."
That presumably harks back to Kellyanne Conway’s now notorious appeal to "alternative facts," which I wrote about in this space in January, but it is patently untrue. In fact, you could call the slogan itself a lie if, like the Times and so much of the rest of the media nowadays, you don’t have any nostalgic attachment to the notion that a lie and an error are distinct and incompatible terms — the former, unlike the latter, requiring an intention to deceive. Whoever dreamed up this slogan was certainly in error if he or she thought that the alternative to truth, let alone Truth, was a lie. Sometimes, it is, it’s true. But the slogan reads: "The alternative. . ." and so ignores, whether with an intention to deceive or not, the obvious truth that the alternative may also be one of many other things, such as a half-truth, a "truthful exaggeration," an untruthful exaggeration, a mistake, a mistaken inference or hypothesis or (one of the Times’s own favorites) a mere speculation dressed up in Truth’s clothing.
For example: "Trump May Have Pushed Dutch Voters Away From Populism" headlined the Truth-loving Times on Friday, though the article to which the headline was appended also mentioned several other possible if equally speculative explanations for the Dutch election result. It was an article which I almost didn’t bother to read, since the headline led me to suppose that it was just another of the paper’s daily, almost hourly, attacks on the President based on nothing but surmise and speculation — such as that against his hypothetical collusion with Russian hackers or other, as yet unidentified Russian agents doing unknown and undiscoverable dirty deeds to "interfere" with last November’s election and so to deprive Mrs Clinton of her rightful victory. Maybe.
Such worthless "news" stories, all dangling before a presumptively eager Times readership the prospect of the biggest scandal since Watergate — since forever, really — on the basis of nothing but straws in the wind and wishful thinking, may also fail to qualify, quite, as lies. But they certainly are not the Truth that the paper’s PR campaign promises either. They are, rather, what have lately become the most frequent of all the various alternatives to the truth, which is — though it may not fit on a button — ideologically-motivated stupidity. And that is a species of falsehood almost as culpable as a lie, in my view, since its purpose is to shut down debate by demanding that any other viewpoint than one’s own be assumed to be the product of bad faith and evil intent. For that is, in any case, the implication of calling one’s own viewpoint "the Truth" and any alternative to it "a lie."