One afternoon three years ago, I heard Sissela Bok talk to a group of journalists about the subject of her book, "Lying." This was long before the Janet Cooke caper. In fact, what she was thinking about at the time was the Chicago Sun-Times investigation into city corruption.
In 1978 Sun-Times reporters had operated a small bar under other names, other identities. Bok wanted to know if it was ethical for journalists to deceive others in pursuit of the truth.
But the journalists at this luncheon gradually changed the subject. This sort of deception, this delicate moral question of means and ends, was rare.
What we worried about much more was printing or broadcasting lies. I don't mean fabricated stories; I don't mean reconstructed quotes; I don't mean composite profiles. I mean the sort of lies told us on the best of authority, with the most solidly names sources. I mean the way in which the media, willy-nilly, sometimes have disseminated somebody else's deliberate deceptions -- in Vietnam, in Washington.
But my own concern that day was about a more subtle problem -- the lies printed and broadcast in the pursuit of "fairness," of "balance." I wondered then, as I do now, what happens to the truth when we present certain issues as a matter of opposing facts, opposing opinions, with no bottom line of right or wrong.
I thought about this again last week. On one side of Washington, the American Society of Newspaper Editors heard members' anguish over Janet Cooke's fabrication.
On the other side of the capital, other reporters heard Phyllis Schlafly weave a tale about sexual harassment to a Senate committee. "Men hardly ever ask sexual favors of women from whom the certain answer is 'No,'" she said. "Virtuous women are seldom accosted by unwelcome sexual propositions or familiarities, obscene talk or profane language."
It was vintage Schlafly, nothing more or less. Yet this pure poppycock was sent off to every newspaper in the country. In the papers the next morning, she was the representative of the "other side," a balance to the testimony offered by J. Clay Smith Jr., acting chair of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.
I wasn't all that surprised, Schlafly's words are often quoted as if they were facts. Her opinions are often repeated as if they were based on research. This has been true since she first said that the ERA would mean co-ed toilets.
Indeed, I found it remarkable when, later that same week at a different hearing, Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) told her bluntly, "Your statement there is grossly inaccurate."
But I am trying to make a different point. Because the fantasy created in the Senate chamber that morning could be attributed, because it was the direct quote of a named source, her words were published without a qualm about truth.
I suppose the Schlafly caper didn't do any real harm. Columnists and editorial writers leaped on it. Indeed, nobody really takes her seriously anymore. In a strange double standard, feminist leaders are held up to a much stricter conduct of truth than the Schlafys.
But it is an example of the problems inherent in the journalistic prejudice to portray opposing sales evenhandedly, as if there were no right and wrong.
Now I am sensitive also to one-sided presentations of the news, sensitive to bias. But we sometimes create a bias, against truth by falsely portraying "the other side." I have seen it not only with Schlafly but also in the current pretense that evolution and creationism are nothing more than separate "scientific arguments."
Too often we leave the editorial writer or the investigative reporter to sort out the facts.
Maybe this is a baroque worry. At another journalism meeting last weekend, John Kenneth Galbraith told a reunion of Nieman fellows that journalists are the only professionals who flagellate themselves in public . . . and enjoy it.
But I find this a tough one. The journalistic reflex to portray both sides can contribute to understanding, or it can create a false impression. The notion that journalists must guarantee the absolute truth of every quoted word and attributed fact they convey is overwhelming.
This morning, I am left looking at the new Gallup Poll figures that show 61 percent of Americans to be skeptical about what they read, see or hear. In some ways, I find that oddly reassuring.