Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bull for the Gullible (Now More Correct!)

Correction: Ooops! I learn from my commenter that I have unfairly impugned the reportage of Dan Zak. It seems I myself had it wrong about Paul Ekmann's on-line course, which does retail for $199 and not $49.95 as I so snottily asserted. I guess this reportage is trickier than it looks, and maybe shouldn't be undertaklen without fact-checkers and editors and such. From now on I'll confine myself to fulminating.

No word as yet as to why the Post team couldn't come up with any lies by living Republicans to illustrate the article.

Perhaps it used to be that journalists felt a duty to tell the truth, or even, as the cliché has it, to “speak truth to power,” but clearly, in the day of 500 cable-channels and corporate consolidation of all the mass media, the M.O. of the “journalist” is more ‘selling bull to the gullible’. In the heady days Woodward and Bernstein the Washington Post organization might have actually investigated unindicted co-conspirators like Karl Rove; today they put them on the payroll. Now that the watchdogs of the democracy have become the ladogs of the kleptocracy, journalism has devolved into the broadcast of whatever fluff will distract the public, crowding genuine revelation off the pages and screens while masquerading as reportage, and above all, carefully avoiding offense to the corporate overlords. In perfect illustration of this degeneration, an otherwise utterly banal piece in today’s Washington Post achieves a form of distinction as the quintessence of today’s lazy, mendacious – and worst – cowardly journalistic practice.

Somehow it is fitting, in this Post-Ironic age that the article should be entitled, The Truth About Lying. It is by staff writer Dan Zak, whose name would live in infamy along with those of Janet Cooke and Stephen Glass, if there were any justice in the media world, and if this botch hadn’t been slathered onto the lowly, infomercial pages of the Sunday Source section. Still, it and its sidebars and cutesy illustrations are big, big Big! – taking up a full page and a half of valuable column-inches in a “leading paper”. But it wasn’t just size that caught my attention.
Decades ago I discovered the invaluable writings of Paul Ekmann, a social psychologist who studies lying; now I’m no longer surprised at how often his work gets dumbed down for middlebrow consumption by journalists. (He must be one of the most interviewed professors in all of American academia.) So when I saw the Source headline I cringed, suspecting that he’d be misused yet again; still, I had no idea how badly. Zak’s woeful treatment of the subject has two theses, one embedded – ‘We are all liars.’ – and one baldly stated, ‘Detecting lies is easy.’ In service of the first notion, Zak undertakes a standard Orwellian denaturing of terms. He redefines lie as any departure from absolute candor. Thus, QED, everybody lies:

“How are you,” a co-worker asks.
“Fine, thanks,” you say, when in truth,
you’re not fine.

True, virtually all civil people do engage in such locutions; but to define that sort of deflective verbal tic as lying, is to expand the concept infinitely, unto meaninglessness. We are not all liars. Most people tell an occasional lie, but there are many people who try valiantly to tell the truth any time it matters, and there are many others who lie reflexively, often without the slightest awareness or compunction. The former are honest people; the latter are liars. To equate them, as Zak’s terminology would, is to abandon a crucial distinction, perhaps the crucial distinction, without which honor and ethics are themselves meaningless.

But one can hardly expect Zak to be sensitive to nuances of language; for he has written this:

…How do we cut through the thick crust of deception and drill our way to the
hot, molten core of

It’s easy. With training and practice.

Leaving aside for now the planet-sized ineptitude of the metaphor (an issue itself not wholly irrelevant to mendacity), we should wonder at his basic assertion: ‘Detecting lies is easy, with training and practice.’

This seems to contradict most of those interviewed for the article: "Don't trust your impressions," Ekman says of trying to detect concealed emotions. "They'll probably be wrong based on stereotype. Judging by demeanor is very difficult to do." Also this alleged ‘ease’, I would guess, doesn’t really square with most adult experience; moreover Zak seems to ignore the way lie-detection is richly depicted in history, philosophy, literature and legal doctrine as being one of most diabolically vexing problems we face. Surely there are many people in law enforcement and intelligence, with abundant training, practice and life-and-death motivation who find the truth anything but “easy” to determine.

But even though he’s telling us something he knows, or ought to know is untrue. Zak isn’t really lying here. He’s not really asserting anything; that’s just not a mood in the Advertese he speaks. He’s just infotaining us, and doing so in the factoid/merchant-booster spirit of the Sunday Source section. He’s mostly touting the services of sometime Fox News personality Janine Driver, who, billing herself as the “Lyin’ Tamer” sells, for $55, a two-part class “The Truth About Lying: Detecting Deception.” She must be an authority, it seems, because:

“She frequently pops up on Rachel Ray and the Today show to demonstrate her
ability to “read” people.”

How does Driver tell when people are lying? Basically you pay close attention, or as she puts it:
“The number one thing is to norm them.” explains Driver. “What is their normal behavior, and when do they deviate from that?”

In a sidebar, Truth Be Told…, Zak apparently distills such wisdom of Driver and the other lie experts he consulted, but the advice he offers for sleuthing out the truth seems about as vague as that of the store-front mystic. It may be hard to argue with, but it’s not much to go on either. To detect a lie: “Keenly observe the whole picture: a person’s speech, body language and facial expressions, as well as the context in which they occur…..”

If this isn’t good enough, you can go on-line and get the Micro-Expression Training Tool for only $49.95. [Falsehood alert! Erratum! : This is compete crap; what Zak says about the price is true : (Zak says it’s $199, but then again, you can’t expect today’s Post reporter to actually check.)] This tool is laboratory-proven to help you detect lies among test subjects on video, though perhaps not when, as in real life, you yourself have to decide whether to trust, or perhaps divorce or convict.
To detect “concealed emotion” – which is apparently related somehow to lie detection, Zak says one should look for such signs as,

1. Acting less positive, pleasant or cooperative.
2. Pausing frequently in
speech, stumbling over words or speaking indirectly.
3. Looking or sounding
4. Telling less-compelling and less-detailed stories, or stories
whose “facts” change. You may note a lack of logical structure, or that they
don’t sound involved in the story. There may be a certain distance between
story teller and the story...

These certainly reminded me of someone in particular, but not Zak apparently. In another illustrated accompaniment he instances Big Lies, Big Consequences. He prefaces this section with an explanation about how even Churchill lied, even Jimmy Carter, about plans for military rescue of the Iran hostages. This is perhaps to underscore his earlier point: we’re all liars. Certainly Zak commits a bit of a whopper:

…Here are five cases of marquee lying. Note: We are not equating the
gravity or consequences of these disparate acts, but simply looking at famous

Now, it seems to me that when you devote exactly the same amount of newspaper space to each instance of a phenomenon, you are in fact positing a rough equivalence, especially if you load the language in certain ways. Zak’s Big Lies include: Hitler’s pledge not to invade his neighbors, Nixon’s denial of Watergate involvement, journalists’ fabricates stories, Enron fraud, and most pointedly (halfway between the invasion of Czechoslovakia and the $40 billion dollar bankruptcy and illustrated with a photo dead-center), “Clinton’s Denial.”

A sexual indiscretion was exacerbated by a perjury charge and by the fact that
the man involved was the president [sic]. You probably still remember Clinton’s
lie verbatim: “I did not. Have. Sexual. Relations. With that woman [sic],” he
told the American people.

All the other lies here, of whatever size or significance, are related in bland generalities, not labeled perjury and rendered in trendily lurid typographies, so perhaps this lie is journalistically equaller than the others.

I found the article eerily similar to, in fact, maybe a sort of condensation of one which Malcolm Gladwell published in New Yorker (August 5, 2002.) Gladwell too interviewed Ekmann and they apparently reviewed the video of Clinton’s lie, the good doctor explaining, with 20/20 hindsight, just how we could tell the Big Dog was lying. Maybe he gave Zak this spiel too (or maybe Zak just read Gladwell’s recent anthology). Back in 2002, I wrote both Gladwell and Ekmann wondering why all trace of Republican lying had been so very painstakingly excluded from the article; I never got an answer from either, but I have my own theory: this administration is demonstrably more hostile to the truth than any in America history, and so, more hostile to truth-tellers. Saying the obvious, straight out, “The President and his subordinates lie constantly and obviously,” is to risk the dangerous ire of the Bushies, and their irregulars: the Ditto-Heads, Swift-Boaters, and of course the Pioneers on various media Boards of Directors. This possibly is why President Bush’s truly amazing, Snidely Whiplash repertoire of tics, stammers, scowls, growls, sputters, malapropisms and slips doesn’t remind Ekmann, Gladwell, or Zak of anything. But certainly George W., when pressed, will start “acting less positive, pleasant or cooperative,” start “pausing frequently in speech, stumbling over words or speaking indirectly,” start, “Looking or sounding tense” and continue,

Telling less-compelling and less-detailed stories, or stories whose “facts” change. You may note a lack of logical structure, or that they don’t sound involved in the story. There may be a certain distance between story teller and the story...

Certainly too, innumerable figures in this administration have been captured telling well-documented lies on video. It might be worth studying Bush’s mannerisms as he told us about what “the British have learned” about the famous Nigerian yellowcake. Then too, when Vice President Cheney, told Tim Russert that “Saddam has reconstituted nuclear weapons,” or perhaps when later he told Russert that he never told him that, those videotapes might be worth consideration. Or if one doesn’t really want to go there for whatever reason, one could examine the tapes of Ronald Reagan denying any “arms for hostages” deal in Iran-Contra, or George H.W. Bush claiming to have been “out of the loop” on the same conspiracy, or perhaps Caspar Weinberger’s perjury, wherein he gave his superior’s lies the “bodyguard” of his own. Somehow none of these ever seems to come up when such “journalists” discuss Big Lies, and yet some of these untruths have had considerable historical importance.

How much journalistically safer then, and yet sexier, all around, to revisit Clinton’s lie about That Woman, than to worry about the kind of fib that squanders trillions of dollars or ruins millions of lives. I predict rapid advancement for lowly Dan Zack at the Post, and in the ranks of American journalism as a whole.

(I also posted this as Diary on DKos, but I'm repurposing it here partly because the link-feature at DKos Diaries is for shit.)


At 12:52 PM, Blogger J.J. said...

To correct the most specific accusation, we're talking about Ekman's new mettonline.com tool, not his outdated CD. The membership and training course online is, in fact, $199.

And since you so ravenously impugn his honor, the author would hope you'd accept his invitation to e-mail him at zakd@washpost.com. This kind of criticism, even on a personal blog, needs to be talked out, and answered.


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