They Punish Liars in Nepal, Don’t They?

I’m kind of loving the fact that Nepal will ban you from climbing mountains in their country for ten years if you falsely claim to have reached the summit of Mt. Everest. That’s what just happened to Dinesh and Tarakeshwari Rathod, two police officers from Maharashtra, India.

I think I’d like to see the American justice system adopt some similar penalties for dishonesty. Of course, that can get tricky since the First Amendment gives you the right to lie your head off, in print or anywhere else. You can lie about your degree from the Wharton School of Business, or about your net worth, or about the poverty level in the Hispanic community. Most of the time, there are no legal implications for being a huge liar, and that’s the way it should be.

Still, if I was magically put in charge of such things, I’d be totally in favor of a ten-year ban for appearing on television and telling bald-faced whoppers. If I hosted or produced a cable news program, I would certainly tell each guest that they will never be invited back if they use the courtesy of our airtime to spew transparently and egregiously false information.

There’s always a place for lawyerly spin, but knowingly lying should be punished in a society, at least informally. And news organizations should be especially concerned about the potential for inadvertently misleading the public. It seems odd that they consider it essential to issue corrections when they make mistakes but they take so little care to make sure that their guests don’t just make up facts and statistics and historical events. Have you ever seen a correction on the Rachel Maddow Show where she explains that her research team has confirmed that the last guest just totally misrepresented certain facts and figures and then provides the correct information?

That never seems to happen, even though she’s conscientious about telling viewers when she has made mistakes of her own.

To be truthful, one reason that it’s impractical for news organizations to correct the record is that they allow so much lying in the first place. You don’t want to devote the resources you’d need to clean up after every new segment of lies, and the public would find the whole spectacle tedious.

But, if guests knew before appearing that they are expected to be truthful and that they will be put on probation and possibly never invited back if their comments necessitate a correction, a lot of the problem would get solved up front.

Of course, this would never fly at Fox News for a variety of reasons, including that their audience wants to be deluded and that giving them fully vetted information would drive them to Breitbart and Newsmax. There’s also the problem that this is a group of people still struggling with plate tectonics and the meaning of the Australopithecus afarensis. Asking them to vet a comment on climate change is like asking a Red Sox fan to root for Derek Jeter because it’s the All-Star Game.

Yet, the National Review‘s David French seems to know how important it is to folks to be on Fox News.

I’ll never forget the first time I was on Fox News. Bill O’Reilly had taken an interest in one of my cases and brought me and my client on to his show. Truly, he was interested only in her perspective, but since litigation was looming, we were a package deal.

So I drove to a studio in Nashville, sat in front of the fake city-skyline background, took a deep breath, and dove in. I bombed miserably. O’Reilly didn’t like my answers, and I struggled to explain myself when he pressed me for more details. I didn’t look good and I didn’t sound good. I had all the charisma of a wet dishrag. The first phone call after the show was from my best friend from college. He was laughing at me. “Dude, you were terrible.”

And yet, in the long run, that first appearance may well have been the best career move I’d made since getting a law degree. From that moment forward, I could claim the most important résumé bullet point in the conservative movement: “David French has appeared on Fox News.”

And, yeah, I know that that résumé bullet point is impressive and everything, but it’s probably not quite as valuable when the next sentence is “David French has been banned by Fox News.”

Contrary to some popular opinion, the First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to appear on television or to have your comments repeated in print. A little cultural shift and we’d see a country where adults are held to the same standards of truthfulness as our kids in elementary school. No, it is not okay to repeat Johnny’s lie just because you’re not the one who came up with it in the first place.

Truly, I understand the ratings game and the business end of news, but there should be more shame in this industry. It should do some self-policing. Nepal seems to understand the value to their tourist and climbing industry in not allowing people to just go around taking credit for things they didn’t actually accomplish. But our news industry doesn’t take similar care to protect their reputation for integrity.

We’re all the worse for it.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.