A Big Stupid Mess

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Is honesty always the best policy?

Now there’s a loaded question if there ever was one.

I’m sure we can all think of situations and scenarios in which it at least seems like bending the truth or telling a few white lies would help to avoid problems and make things run more smoothly. But is that justified?

This is, of course, one of the primary ethical questions and dilemmas facing our society these days – particularly when it comes to government and the media.

Are government officials justified in misleading the public if doing so helps to uphold national security, public safety, or public health? In such cases, should the media cooperate with the government in spreading well-meaning misinformation – or should journalists always seek to expose the truth, even if that puts the nation and its citizens at risk?

Of course, effectively lying to the public (even if your intentions are good) requires that the public (or at least most of population) remains unaware that they’re being lied to – otherwise, any good intentions you might have had tend to go flying out the window.

And when you have obvious political motivations, an already deeply divided political and cultural environment, a politically factionalized media, and a general distrust of both the government and media organizations – when you throw all that into the mix, you get a truly toxic brew of confusion, suspicion, and paranoia.

That seems to be exactly the kind of big stupid mess we have gotten ourselves into as a nation when it comes to this pandemic and our response to it. And I think the biggest problem has been in the messaging.

Ever since Trump made his first public statements regarding the “China virus” back in the early days of 2020, the race was on to leverage the situation for political advantage – and I’m talking about politicians on both sides of the aisle and talking heads on both sides of the media divide.

I’m not even going to try to cite all the examples of flip-flopping, gas-lighting, blame-gaming, self-righteous grandstanding, hypocrisy, misdirection, and prioritizing narratives over facts that I have born witness to over the past 18 months. They are beyond count.

And as a member of the media, I am particularly ashamed of some of the things I’ve seen and heard and read during this pandemic. The strategic cherry-picking of data, overemphasizing some things while intentionally downplaying (or completely ignoring) others, hypercriticism aimed in one direction while showing fawning favoritism in the other – all to serve an overall narrative that those on one side of the political divide are being true to the science and should be trusted, while those on the other side are just wrong-headed and should not be believed.

And, so, here we are. Only about half the country is currently vaccinated, the Delta variant is driving up infections again (even among the vaccinated), and vaccine mandates and the possibility of returning to mass shutdowns are now a looming reality.

If there was ever a time that Americans needed solid information and advice they could trust, this is it. But too many public officials and media figures have effectively undermined the public’s trust in them by shamelessly politicizing this pandemic from the start.

Personally, I believe all this proves that honesty really is the best policy, and subverting truth and science for political and/or personal reasons is always a bad idea that always brings about bad results – and it creates a sorry situation in which people have trouble discerning what the actual facts are.

But I believe the American people can be trusted to handle messy, complicated realities and honest uncertainties without freaking out. We’re not expecting our leaders to be infallible, and we actually prefer it when they own up to the obvious fact that they don’t always know for certain what’s going to happen or the best course of action to take.

We just need to see a little evidence that they are actually prioritizing and pursuing our well-being over and above their own political gain – and that they have at least a small margin of respect for our constitutional rights and freedoms.

But even if all our country’s leaders and journalists just magically started telling the God’s honest truth about everything without spin or political slant, I fear that few would believe them now.

So – if you are struggling about whether or not you should get vaccinated or if you have any other questions regarding COVID-19 – and if you have a doctor or other medical professional that you personally know and trust – then ask that trusted professional what you should do and then strongly consider following his or her advice.

That’s my advice, anyway. Take it or leave it.

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