As a young teenager in the early 1960s, I vividly recall the day when I took a bus into Birmingham to see a movie. The bus stopped just south of the downtown area because the streets were blocked. Marchers were protesting the segregated lunch counters in downtown stores. The driver asked all passengers to exit the bus and told us to walk over a viaduct if we wanted to proceed into downtown. I did so but had to wait, standing on the viaduct while demonstrators passed on the street ahead. More people gathered, some Black and others White, but all was peaceful and rather routine. One could even describe the scene as just another day of democracy in action in a changing world.
While waiting for the street to clear, I noticed three men talking together while standing on some nearby grass. One man was White, one was Black, and the third was carrying a video camera. The cameraman backed away a few feet from the others. Suddenly, the White man lunged at the Black man, hitting him with his fists and kicking him. The cameraman recorded it all. After a few moments, the White man quit his attack and he and the cameraman and the Black man walked off together, resuming their seemingly normal conversation.
What had I witnessed? My interpretation is that the three men, perhaps journalists, had just combined to stage a phony portrayal of brutality of Whites toward Blacks on the streets of Birmingham. Did they sell the video to a media outlet, perhaps a national television network? Was the concocted struggle used in nationwide broadcasts to show an instance of deplorable racial brutality by the people of Alabama?
As an impressionable youth, I was shocked by what the three men did. Perhaps their main personal end was to make a profit, and they simply felt that something dramatic needed to be generated if they were to sell a video since the actual peacefulness of the day was too boring to record. Or perhaps they genuinely were dedicated to supporting the cause of the marchers, even to the point of being creative with the facts. In any case, they followed an ethic that claims a good end justifies any means toward that end. As their moral justification, perhaps they believed that, since integration is a good end, lying, deception, and blanket defamation of ordinary people are acceptable means to that end.
But, having experienced the factual situation, I had a different view of reality. I had been raised to view truth as objective and to believe that empirical evidence counts. However, on that day I was exposed to a postmodern phenomenon. I started to grow cynical, concluding that I had to become critically discerning of anything coming from the media, local or national.
Over the years, and most apparently during the recent campaign season, many media outlets and campaign organizations have demonstrated that my cynicism, unfortunately, is well founded.
American culture has suffered because we have continued to drift away from seeking and reporting the truth. Many have adopted a journalistic ethic of reporting and saying whatever they believe will work toward promoting an ideological agenda—or furthering a preconceived notion. But even if we believe the agenda is a good one, is not the distortion or denial of objective truth something that ultimately causes cultural and ethical harm along with the good sought?
Legal segregation finally was overcome. But some of the means employed have led to harmful decay as well. Formerly unethical journalistic practices that have often prevailed since the 1960s have become more the norm, resulting in the greater prevalence of distrust and divisions throughout society. We are now reaping harm from unethical means that sought good ends. The whirlwind is increasing.
J. Thomas Whetstone, D.Phil. November 2016