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The myth of the noble lie

| Friday, March 18, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the idea that the media and political leaders have the ability, if not the responsibility, to tell the public “noble lies” to save us from ourselves. On Wednesday, Feb. 9, science journalist for The New York Times, Apoorva Mandavilli, came to Notre Dame to speak about her experience as a health reporter during a global pandemic. When the floor was opened to questions, one audience member asked, “How do you balance a healthy uncertainty with science while promoting public health measures that work?”

This question, perhaps more intriguing than any answer that Mandavilli could have given, points to a fundamental misunderstanding of the role that journalists play in the public sphere: it introduces the idea that the media has the moral imperative to push a narrative at the expense of communicating truth. The question assumes that the job of a journalist, editorial or not, is to move the public toward a particular course of action as much as it is the dissemination of information. It implies that the withholding of facts to control the body politic is just as essential to the role of a journalist as is the transmission of accurate news. This, of course, is a faulty assumption. The reporter occupies a very niche, and very important, position in society. The idea that a person with ambitions to become the next Bob Woodward and a degree from NYU is suddenly endowed with the impetus to decide the best interest of the public is absolutely senseless.

When the press sees itself as that entity which directs public opinion toward its own contrived idea of the good, it disrupts the democratic process and ceases to serve the governed. Of course, journalists must choose which facts and figures to use in an article, and editors must choose which stories to publish. However, the question posed by this audience member suggests not an editorial choice, but a moral one. There is a distinction to be drawn between cutting information for length and actively omitting whole parts of a story because it does not fit into the media’s vision for your future — something that this audience member took for granted as part and parcel of the journalist’s job description.

Freedom necessitates choice, as it rests on the capacity to choose the good. It is quite impossible for either the individual or society as a whole to choose the good if the truth is hidden from them. Already, the United States suffers from a perception that the majority is the arbiter of morality. In “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville details the foundations and the consequences of this philosophy, “The moral dominion of the majority is based in part on the idea that there is more enlightenment and wisdom in many men combined than in one man alone … The consequences of this state of affairs are harmful and dangerous for the future.”

The press, who think that they represent the majority, believe themselves to have the moral duty to crush opposition and stop the minority from being heard, censoring any news that doesn’t fit into their vision of the world. In addition to the obvious affront to freedom and clear moral concern, there is a certain level of personal offense to be taken at this authoritarian posture. Accepting “noble lies” because we have been told that to do otherwise is dangerous for society. We deify people like Dr. Anthony Fauci, who, by his own admission, has lied to the public about the efficacy of masks, vaccines and immunity time and again because he believes that, were the American public given the truth on the pandemic, we might not be as compliant.

On March 8, 2020, Fauci stated that masks were not necessary, saying, “There’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” However, less than a month later, the CDC changed their guidelines. When Fauci was questioned on this new development, he did not claim that there was new data emerging or that the virus was better understood, rather, he admitted that he lied to the American people until that lie was no longer convenient. There is nothing noble about this lie. It is demeaning, it is presumptuous and it is dangerous. The blatant disregard for truth continued into the discussion of herd immunity. Fauci and viral experts alike first cited a 60% to 70% estimate to reach herd immunity, but that figure soon changed to 75%, and then 80%, and then 85%. When questioned on this strange incremental climb, Fauci admitted that he once again lied to the public, making numbers up in a twisted attempt at manipulation. “When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent. Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85 … We really don’t know what the real number is.”

No matter how anxiety-inducing the prospect of getting COVID has been, the way in which America has disregarded this brazen affront to the ideals of freedom and truth should be exponentially more so. Considering all the confusion over the role that journalists take in the public sphere, Mandavilli’s response to that audience member was rather perfect. She answered, “My job is not to come up with measures … My job is to find where the truth lies between the extremes … I think it’s also my job to say, ‘By the way, what your leader is telling you is not quite true.’” Here, Mandavilli shows that she understands the scope of her task as a journalist. It is not that news is supposed to be a dry recitation of facts devoid of any sense of the good, but that the tendency to abandon any actual reporting to push a narrative is counterproductive and a gross violation of all that journalism is supposed to be.

Elizabeth Hale

Holy Cross College


Mar. 16

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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