UNTRUTH: A PRIMER

John Kenneth Galbraith, the economist and writer, coined the phrase "conventional wisdom" more than four decades ago in his 1958 best-selling book, "The Affluent Society." As Galbraith defined it, the conventional wisdom embodied the prevailing set of beliefs about any particular subject or topic. The beliefs didn't have to be correct. They simply had to be widely held and respectable. Since then, the term has gradually filtered into everyday language, and although Galbraith's original meaning has survived, it has also inspired modern variations. Galbraith's conventional wisdom was solid, staid, and pervasive; newer versions often connote what's trendy, intellectually fashionable, or hip. But whether new or old, the conventional wisdom is (as Galbraith noted) frequently wrong.

Sometimes it is the opposite of the truth. More often it is an artful and selective arranging of facts and perceptions that creates a plausible-though misleading-rendering of reality. But it endures because it tells a story that, at one level or another, is appealing. The conventional wisdom draws its power from this ability to fulfill some psychological or political need. Our behavior then reinforces our beliefs. We see what we want to see. We hear what we want to hear. We search for authorities to repeat and strengthen our beliefs and prejudices. "In some measure the articulation of the conventional wisdom is a religious rite," Galbraith wrote. "It is an act of affirmation like reading from the Scriptures or going to church."

Sooner or later, conventional wisdom may change or crumble. But the agents of destruction are rarely logic or persuasion. They are usually circumstances or the force of events. By its nature, the conventional wisdom resists assault by words or argument. People do not like to be disabused of familiar, self-serving, and satisfying ideas. There's a tendency to suppress doubts, dismiss inconvenient inconsistencies or deny contradictory evidence. What changes people's minds is irrefutable and sometimes harsh experience. Then the conventional wisdom usually falls. But it's not sweet reason that wields the ax.

I know this firsthand. In 1969 I became a newspaper reporter. The job's main appeal (aside from seeing my name in print) was the opportunity to learn about new things and to explain these discoveries to readers. It was an excuse to ask questions usually off limits to ordinary citizens. Always, the quest was "the truth," even if the ultimate truth-often complex, ambiguous, and disputed-might be hard or impossible to locate. When I began a column in 1976, the aim was the same. It was to convey a fuller understanding of some problem or phenomenon. The more I did this, the more I collided with conventional wisdom, because that's where the reporting led. Increasingly, my columns questioned or rebutted conventional wisdom. Some of those columns are collected in this volume.

THE END OF CONVENTIONAL WISDOM?

Nothing I wrote doomed any bit of conventional wisdom. Some prevailing fads have slipped into well-deserved oblivion, but only because events discredited them. In the mid-1980s we were warned that America's "deindustrialization" was making us a nation of low-paid hamburger flippers and laundry workers (see "We're Not a National Laundromat"); the notion couldn't survive the economic boom of the 1990s. Nor could the idea that Japan would overtake us economically outlive Japan's stagnation in the 1990s. But other suspect ideas continue to flourish, apparently impervious to any amount of unfriendly evidence or logic. We're told that wealthy, conservative interests have come to dominate Washington; it isn't true (see "The Stealth Power Brokers"). More recently, the Internet has been touted as one of the greatest advances in technology since printing; the comparison offends history (see "The Internet and Gutenberg").

Of course, not all conventional wisdom is mistaken. If it were, society might begin to unravel. Everyday blunders, based on faulty ideas, would multiply and spread chaos. Still, we succumb to many dubious fads. Why is this? Galbraith provides few clues. In some ways he merely attached a new label to something old: the inertia of beliefs. People cling to what they know and what makes them feel comfortable. Galbraith attributed this to a dislike of too much originality. It's more than that. It's a pragmatic concession to daily living. If we constantly reexamined every belief and assumption, we'd be paralyzed by indecision. We'd routinely ponder and procrastinate. But in our modern media culture, conventional wisdom isn't what it used to be-and therein lies an engine of errors.

For Galbraith, conventional wisdom consisted of vintage ideas. It was like old wine. It had acquired its reputation through constant repetition over many years by countless authorities. Like good wine, it might spoil. Overtaken by events or new knowledge, it might describe a bygone era or an obsolete theory. By contrast, today's conventional wisdom routinely seems to spring from nowhere. Theories-often on subjects that most people hadn't thought about or on which they had few firm views-acquire sudden fashionability and acceptability. They do not age gracefully. They are instantly bottled, heavily advertised and eagerly sold. Conventional wisdom is less spontaneous and more contrived than before. It's increasingly an act of intellectual or political merchandising.

This helps explain, I think, why so much of it turns out to be superficial, misleading or dim-witted. These ideas are creatures of personal ambition, group campaigns, political and intellectual agendas. They do not emerge from a dispassionate effort to discover the truth. They are exercises in salesmanship and suffer from all the excesses of salesmanship. People emphasize what makes their case and overlook or minimize what doesn't. Claims are overstated. Evidence is selective. Qualifications are omitted or obscured.

'THE POLITICS OF PROBLEM SOLVING'

Politics drives much of this. By politics, I do not mean exclusively or primarily Democratic and Republican, liberal and conservative. Today's dominant form of politics is what I call "the politics of problem solving." Every defect in society must somehow be converted into an identifiable "problem" that can then be "solved"-usually by government, but if not, then by "the market" or someone or something else. By and large, Americans are an optimistic and pragmatic people who worship progress. We are wedded to the idea that problems can be solved-and our imperfections thereby reduced. Americans believe, Tocqueville noted, in "the indefinite perfectibility of man." We resist the notion that some shortcomings are simply a normal part of life.

This is not, then, a new impulse. But in our era it has become more pronounced. It is constantly fed by advocacy groups, entrepreneurial politicians-candidates and office holders who cannot rely on a strong central party apparatus to get ahead and must increasingly promote themselves-and intellectual elites, of both left and right. All preach to the public on everything from government policy to popular culture. We are led to believe that most social and economic problems can be solved and that people's wants can be relieved or satisfied. By the problems they seek to solve, these various advocates, politicians, and idea merchants define themselves. They establish identities, raise their visibility and assemble constituencies or audiences. Advocacy blurs with self-promotion.

What this process produces is endless exaggeration. A problem cannot simply be modest, inconvenient, unavoidable or intractable. It must be large, serious, dangerous, intolerable-and solvable. So problems are overstated in their size and significance, as are the powers of proposed solutions. The pursuit of private contributions to finance political campaigns cannot simply be demeaning and sleazy; it must rattle the very foundations of democracy-and be curable by "campaign finance reform" (see "The Price of Politics"). Managed care cannot simply be a new and imperfect approach to delivering health services; it must be a dehumanizing assault on the integrity of modern medicine-and be curable by "health care reform" (see "Myth of the Managed Care Monster"). In the 1990s the Republican takeover of Congress could not simply be a change in political power that would modify the country's direction and political climate. It had to be a full-scale "revolution" that would change politics and life as we know it (see "They Call This a Revolution?").

To some extent, advocacy requires that arguments become morality tales: good guys (or ideas) vs. bad. Heroes and villains create intellectual and political throw-weight so that agendas can be advanced, skeptics discredited and opponents vilified. In the United States, this sort of crusading finds a willing audience. Beyond optimism-the faith that what's broken can be fixed-lies our missionary heritage. Americans have always imagined themselves as an exceptional and righteous people bent on improving humanity by assaulting bastions of ignorance, corrupt power or evil. These national characteristics are great virtues. They often imbue us with a constructive innocence: just because something hasn't been done doesn't mean that it can't be done. The faith in progress can produce progress and often has. But some national virtues, when taken to excess, also become national vices (see "The Vices of Our Virtues").

CONFLICTING DEMANDS

Problem-solving politics is one of those galling mixtures of success and failure. When failed, it leads to conventional wisdom that abounds with simplicities and stupidities, while inspiring "solutions" that sometimes do more harm than good. The problem in health care is not "managed care" but contradictory public demands: we want universal health insurance, absolute autonomy for patients and doctors over treatment-and controlled health costs. No system can simultaneously satisfy these inconsistent demands. (If everyone has insurance for everything-and doctors or patients can order whatever they want-costs will be uncontrolled.) The problem with "campaign finance reform" is that, if taken to its logical conclusion, it would obliterate political free speech. Inconveniently, modern communication (for television, advertising, mass mailings) requires money. If communication isn't speech, what is it? And if people can't spend to advocate political views and support sympathetic political candidates, how "free" are they?

The art of effective advocacy suppresses doubts that would spoil the moral message. Problems would no longer be so simple, solutions no longer so obvious. Conflicts between desirable goals are minimized, as are the practical limits of proposed solutions. We in the press aid the evasion-and sometimes instigate it. As Americans, we share the problem-solving sensibility. Beyond that, we have our own interests. We need to attract and retain audiences. Both our instincts and interests lie in cultivating controversy and conflict. We are usually eager to sign on to moral or political crusades. They're a good story and appeal to our customers. Although this has long been true, new competitive realities have magnified the effect.

Only a few decades ago-in the 1960s-the national news media comprised a small and stable group of organizations: three TV networks (ABC, CBS and NBC); three newsmagazines (Time, NEWSWEEK and U.S. News & World Report); a few newspapers with national stature (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post) and only one with a national circulation (the Journal), and several major news services (the Associated Press, United Press International). This enabled news professionals-editors, reporters-to retain a decisive say over what was and wasn't "news." Their judgments were obviously fallible and not immune to the reigning political or intellectual fashions. But their judgments were largely their own. With stable audiences, the commercial pressures to use the news to attract readers and viewers was modest.

The situation today is entirely different. The proliferation of media is stunning: cable channels (MTV, ESPN, CNN, C-Span); another major TV network (Fox); two more national newspapers (USA Today and The New York Times); and countless Internet Web sites with news, financial news, medical information, pornography-and much more. No one's audience is any longer secure. When the networks controlled TV, viewers watched nightly news programs (usually slotted at the same time)-or nothing. Now they can click onto cooking, sports, cartoons, movies, travel stories, home shopping. Or they can surf the Net. Network nightly news audiences have plunged. Newspaper readership has declined more slowly-but decline it has.

WHOSE NEWS?

The upshot is that the people who run the news business have lost power in determining what is and isn't news. Increasingly, readers and viewers define the news by picking and choosing what they want-or deciding that they don't want news at all. This intensifies the demands on editors and reporters to make the news more popular and palatable. There has been a blurring between news and entertainment, as television's values pervade all media. To lure audiences, commentary has become more strident. CNN's "Crossfire" was a bellwether: the political equivalent of pro wrestling. Editorial independence has receded. Editors still decide what's printed or viewed, but if what they do fails in the marketplace, they will be replaced.

Critics of the mass media often complain that domination by a few big corporate giants subordinates news values to profits. The situation, in many respects, is just the opposite. Greater competition has assailed editorial autonomy. The more media giants there are, the more hard-pressed news values have become. When a few giants dominated (the three TV networks being the obvious examples), they could tolerate greater independence from news divisions, precisely because overall profitability was more certain and predictable. By contrast, today's media giants are more numerous and less secure. The ferocious competition for customers emphasizes commercial success and undermines pure editorial values. To some extent, news has been democratized. It has been thrown increasingly to the dictates of the marketplace. This favors an editorial style that emphasizes morality tales of heroes and villains and sharply drawn conflicts-anything that creates a "buzz."

What I am suggesting is that the way we, as a society, increasingly organize and present information leads-systematically and almost predictably-to misinformation. The precarious media and the practitioners of problem-solving politics (politicians, advocacy groups, "talking heads") have entered into a marriage of convenience. There's mutual exploitation to achieve narrow goals: to attain celebrity or notoriety; to advance a political or intellectual agenda; to capture audience and market share. The result is that we are bombarded by a constant stream of problems (some societal, some the extension of personal problems-drugs, illness, marital abuse, stress) and accompanying solutions. Many of the problems are genuine; some of the solutions might actually help. But there is pervasive exaggeration of both problems and solutions, because that's what grabs attention.

REALITY DISTORTION

I call this process "untruth." It is the common distortion of reality, which is not-however-typically the result of deliberate lies. Rather, it is an ordinary outcome of our political and media democracy. It's what happens when we explore and debate issues that affect us collectively. If we didn't do this, we wouldn't be who we are. By and large, the process is healthy. But it becomes unhealthy when it simplifies our view of reality and romanticizes our power to alter it. For me, these self-serving simplifications and exaggerations have been a fertile field for reporting and commentary. They beg to be elaborated and qualified. I have tried to provide context: to give people a more candid and complete picture of the world about them. What I have concluded is that the conventional wisdom is (usually) wrong, because it is a vehicle for some political agenda or personal ambition.

In practice, I do not believe that any political, social, economic, or ideological group has a monopoly on untruth. You can see the same mechanics operating similarly across the political spectrum and an array of social concerns and claims. Conservatives tend to glorify "markets" even when markets obviously make mistakes (see "The Mysterious Merger Frenzy"). Liberals tend to overstate the corrosive effects of income inequality (see "The Typical Household Isn't"). Environmentalists talk in doomsday terms about the destruction of the planet (see "Don't Hold Your Breath"). Again, the problems are often real, but they need to be presented in the starkest terms to excite interest or buttress proposed remedies.

Although the techniques are widespread, there's a bias in the types of untruths that acquire prominence. These are "liberal" untruths. The main reason is that the "scribbling and chattering class"-reporters, editors, academics, commentators-tend to be more liberal than conservative. Countless surveys have confirmed this for the press. In 1992 almost 90 percent of Washington reporters voted for Bill Clinton, according to one poll. In the country at large, Clinton's popular vote was only 43 percent. A survey of academics (professors at two- and four-year colleges and universities) published in the Chronicle of Higher Education finds the following: 5.2 percent consider themselves "far left"; 39.6 percent "liberal"; 37.2 percent "middle of the road"; 17.6 percent "conservative"; and 0.4 percent "far right."

OBJECTIVE AND NEUTRAL?

The result is not a conscious alliance between the press and liberal advocacy groups and Democratic politicians. Most reporters and editors (at least of newspapers, newsmagazines, and mainstream television, though obviously not of opinion journals or shows) subscribe to the notion that they ought to be objective and neutral. They are as eager to cover scandals involving liberals as conservatives. They know that most politicians and partisans try to "spin" stories. Few reporters see themselves as passive platforms for someone else's propaganda. We all know that we're prone to being used by "sources." And much of what the press does has little to do with politics or partisanship. We're simply reporting a "good story" or performing the traditional "watchdog" role of government, large institutions, and corporations.

The bias is more subtle. The stories told by liberal politicians and "experts" of all stripes (economists, scientists, doctors, social scientists, educators) find a more sympathetic ear than the stories told by conservatives. The liberals' heroes and villains, their values and beliefs, correspond more closely with the philosophies and prejudices of reporters and editors. What comes from liberal sources seems more credible and relevant. It matches their notions of social conflict and the pursuit of social good. This is not (they think) bias. It's reality. Often they can't imagine things any other way. By contrast, conservatives-or any nonliberals-are often seen as apologists for business and the rich. Or they're stigmatized as uncompassionate and cranky.

My own values (I believe) are fairly mainstream, though others have labeled them too conservative or-less often-too liberal. I believe Big Government has on the whole benefited the nation, but I also think that the expansion of government poses many practical problems and invites abuse. People can be made too dependent on government benefits. Taxes can go too high for our economic health or personal freedom. Although limits are hard to draw, they exist. Similarly, I put a great deal of faith in "markets"-the freedom to determine what we produce, how it's priced, how we save and invest, and where we work-but do not believe that markets are all-knowing or perfect. They make mistakes and require some government oversight and regulation. There's often a fine line between too little and too much.

THE ROLE OF PARENTS

Finally, I believe in what are sometimes derided as "traditional family values": parental love and discipline by two parents, if possible. With luck, parents can help their children grow to be responsible and self-reliant adults. Parents provide love, small lessons of everyday living, and the knowledge that someone cares. From this crucible can emerge personal competencies and self-confidence. Although parenting is a haphazard undertaking-and there is no guarantee of success-government and social agencies cannot easily substitute for loving and qualified parents (see "What Money Can't Buy"). I have had one wife and three children, now aged 10 to 15. They are the most important parts of my life.

As journalists, columnists are (I believe) half-breeds. They are neither pure reporters nor, in my view, pure advocates. They ought to combine the two. They ought to blend a point of view and sensibility with their reporting. The greatest danger-a consequence of being too impressed with your own importance-is becoming a self-parody: someone whose views and style are so predictable that they can be easily mimicked. My particular peril is that, by constantly challenging the conventional wisdom, I become reflexively skeptical of any view held by large numbers of people or routinely criticize anything that is new or different. I am aware of the danger but am not always able to rise above it.

Like most journalism, what we write is usually written on deadline. Judgments must be made quickly. They are often wrong. I doubt there are any major columnists who could not be embarrassed by some of their past writings; if there are, I am not among them. I could have stuffed this book with my own blunders. One of my favorite columns coined the concept of "retarded technology"-the opposite of advanced technology. It signified new technologies that create cumbersome and costly ways of doing things that were once done simply and inexpensively. One example was the electronic book, which struck me as an absurd idea when paper books were so convenient. On reflection, I decided not to include that column.