Topic: Media

Manningism at the WSJ: When Lies Don’t Matter

The Wall Street Journal, nudged by blogger Eugene Volokh, has allowed its political preferences to drive it into ethical madness. It has contracted the dread David Manning disease.

Some background is needed: elsewhere on the home page, The Ethics Scoreboard has immortalized David Manning, not for anything he did (he never existed) but for the chutzpah of his creator, the Sony corporation. They not only invented the phony critic so that they could attach his rave reviews to newspaper ads for their most pathetic films (David Manning was a fictional incompetent reviewer, you see…as if we didn’t already have enough real ones), they argued, when their little scam was discovered, that it wasn’t really dishonest because nobody believed quoted movie plugs anyway. At the time, we thought this was such a ridiculous defense of the ethically indefensible that it would never rear its defective little head again.

Now comes the esteemed Journal to excuse the GOP’s mailing to Arkansas and West Virginia voters implying that the Bible would be “banned” if Democrats triumphed. Taking their inspiration from Eugene Volokh’s rightly admired web log, the Volokh Conspiracy [], the Journal argues that the mailing is just “hyperbole” because what it seems to imply is inherently unbelievable. Let’s quote Volokh’s argument, since the Journal relies on it heavily:

“…whether the usage is actually misleading depends on how people are likely to perceive it. If the literal meaning is clearly extremely implausible (such as that the liberals would actually criminalize private possession and distribution of Bibles), then people are more likely to recognize the alternative meaning. And this is especially so if the usage is in a medium that’s known for hyperbole (such as political mailers), then I suspect that people will discount it in some measure. This is why, having read both the cover separately and the cover and the insides together, it seems to me that the flyer is likely to be understood as making a plausible allegation — that liberals are seeking to ban the Bible from public schools (at least in most contexts) and from government-run displays — rather than a wildly implausible one (that they’re seeking a total outlawing of the Bible).”

The Journal, on its own internet blog “Best of the Web,” continues:

“As Volokh notes, it’s common enough for those on the left to use the word ban with similar looseness. Two examples: “(1) the American Library Association’s use of ‘banned books’ to refer to books that were merely excluded from public school curricula, and (2) the references to a ‘stem cell research ban’ to describe the Bush Administration’s decision to substantially limit federal funding for stem cell research.” 

Perhaps wrongly, the Ethics Scoreboard is a tad more sympathetic with Professor Volokh on this one. He has gone ethically astray here in the way really smart people and intellectuals (especially college professors) frequently go astray, which is to assume everybody thinks the way they do (when in fact, practically nobody thinks the way they do.). Here he is attributing his view of the world to both the creators of the objectionable mailer and those who received it, and in this he is just wrong. Merging Clintonism (“It depends on what the meaning of ‘banned’ is”) with Manningism, he excuses the mailer’s implication that Democrats would ban the Bible because 1) “Ban’ is often used imprecisely and 2) nobody would believe such a thing, and why would the GOP intentionally make a claim that nobody would believe?

Volokh, as is his job as an extensively read blogger, is making a provocative (though seriously flawed) observation, but the Journal is seizing on his arguments to excuse unethical tactics by its favorite party, spreading lame rationalizations hither and yon:


  • Saying schools want to “ban” “Huckleberry Finn” is universally understood to mean that the schools want to remove them from school libraries; saying the Democrats want to “ban” the Bible is in no way equivalent. Furthermore, the fact that liberal groups may use the word “ban” in a misleading way confers no license to do the same on Republicans: that’s in Ethics 101, a course apparently skipped by an awful lot of people out there.

  • Who says that just because a political party’s claim is absurd, the party doesn’t intend it to be believed by the ignorant, the gullible, and the conspiracy-obsessed? It’s absurd to claim the 2000 election was “stolen;” it’s nonsense to say that Bush and Cheney are making all US policy decisions to benefit the oil industry; it’s absurd to say that John Kerry is a fake war hero; …heck, both parties and their allies make ridiculous claims every day, but somehow this claim is so ridiculous that nobody meant it to be believed?

The bottom line is this: political parties, like all public institutions, have an obligation not to throw vicious lies around, whether they are plausible or not. It is wrong, naturally, but it is also dangerous. In the 1930s an obscure little party in Germany began spreading the lie that all the country’s problems were caused by Jews. “Who would believe such a thing?” Sony would say. “It is clear that this is hyperbole,” would be the Wall Street Journal’s reaction. And yet somehow the lie took hold, and millions died as a direct result of it. Play with lies and you’re stirring up hate and suspicion and fear, a combination that history shows is lethal. The Journal, in its partisan excuse-making, and Professor Volokh, by trying to attach too much rationality to a straightforward example of dirty politics, provide a too-convenient rationalization for the next political hit-man or propaganda whiz who designs the next lie. There is no legitimate rationalization for these kinds of falsehoods. If you don’t think anyone will believe it, don’t say it, print it or mail it. And if you do expect people to believe it (which, in truth, is what the GOP did expect), then you’re a liar.

Improving the ethical environment in America includes ending tolerance for lies and liars. Calling them what they are is a good place to start.

Comment on this article


Business & Commercial
Sports & Entertainment
Government & Politics
Science & Technology
Professions & Institutions

The Ethics Scoreboard, ProEthics, Ltd., 2707 Westminster Place, Alexandria, VA 22305
Telephone: 703-548-5229    E-mail: ProEthics President

© 2007 Jack Marshall & ProEthics, Ltd     Disclaimers, Permissions & Legal Stuff    Content & Corrections Policy