Opinion: Our world of cynicism as reflex
You may trust that Evan Halper is in his own personal hell right now.
It’s a place to which all good journalists go when they make mistakes. Which is to say, it’s a place to which all good journalists eventually go. If the error is relatively small, one may spend a day there. If one makes a bigger blunder, one might pack for a weeklong stay.
Halper, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times, is probably having his mail forwarded.
In an article that posted Sunday, he quoted presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as saying, “The failures of the Obama era help explain how we got Trump.” It was an explosive indictment: a candidate already regarded skeptically by African-American voters blaming the nation’s first African-American president for the malicious child who now occupies the Oval Office.
Unsurprisingly, the social media response was ferocious, many people politely — and not so politely — calling for Buttigieg’s head.
The problem was, he never said that. Rather, he blamed “the failures of the old normal.” In a correction tweeted out before dawn — happy hour in hell — Halper said, “I deeply regret” the misquote, which he attributed to “transcribing a noisy recording at a loud rally.”
It’s an explanation that would make perfect sense to anyone who’s ever had to decipher poor quality audio from a small device in a clangorous room — under deadline. (Pro tip: noise-canceling headphones). Buttigieg graciously accepted the apology, and there the matter quietly ended.
No controversy ever ends quietly on social media. So, while many praised Halper for owning his mistake, others simply transferred their anger to him, now demanding his head instead. What was fascinating, though, was not the outrage the episode caused, but the conspiracy theories, people postulating with absolute certainty the unlikely and the absurd.
“Queen of Warmongers” tweeted: “I have trouble believing this was a ‘mistake,’ it feels more like a dirty coordinated hit. Real fake news.”
“Beto for VP” tweeted: “Either you misquoted him on purpose or you’re lying about what he said now. I suspect someone got to you …”
And “LongForTheSea” declared flatly: “He’s lying.”
Take it as a vivid illustration of the paranoiac fear that so often smothers reason in this country, a conviction that labyrinthine conspiracies honeycomb beneath the surface of our lives like subway tunnels. Some of us will never accept a direct explanation when a crazy one is available. It is cynicism as reflex, meaning it is cynicism that does nothing to help navigate toward truth.
Make no mistake: Cynicism has its place; it can be a useful tool of self-defense. But without an agreed-upon and mutually accessible truth, there can be no larger us. A world where everything is always, automatically suspect is a world doomed to instability and fracture.
Hence, America in 2019 — a place and a time where our very ability to discern reality is under siege, where it is common for leaders to lie to us and for us to lie to ourselves, to embrace cognitive dissonance over truths that unsettle and perplex. So we should appreciate all the more what Halper did, what members of his shrinking and maligned profession do routinely.
Indeed, for all the angst this incident has generated, it is also oddly reassuring, a reminder that even in America in 2019, real reporters still adhere to a simple — and brave — mission statement: Figure out what happened and tell it to the best of your ability.
Even when you have to go through hell to do so.
— Leonard Pitts is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Miami Herald.