Bearing False Witness

Christopher Hayes

Here's the most important thing I've learned in the three years I've been a reporter: An accusation costs nothing. Anyone can accuse anyone else of anything. This was driven home to me two years ago when I was reporting a story about an abusive relationship and the protagonist of my story, a woman who had suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her ex-husband, told me that she had heard that her ex-husband had, as a child, pushed his sister in front of a car. At first I thought it was further damning evidence of the perfidy of my story's villain. But after talking to several people in the abusive ex-husband's family who all dismissed it as ludicrous the accusation never made it into the story. Of course, I could have included the accusation along with a denial from the ex-husband, but with absolutely no independent confirmation of this damaging piece of hearsay, I couldn't in good conscience include it. And more importantly, I couldn't in good conscience believe it. In three years of interviewing people involved in heated conflicts, I've had dozens of people look me in the eye and say the most wildly inaccurate and spurious things about people on the other side of the conflict. Usually, these are not outright conscious lies, (though often they are), but rather rumors and hearsay passed along from other people with axes to grind. Now, if you consider yourself an honest person, and I would hazard that most people do, it's hard to conceive that people could just make up totally false shit about another person. You think, somewhere in the back of your mind, that if there's an accusation there has to be some shred of truth to it. But, sadly, that's not the case. People lie all the time. They make false accusations; they spread vile rumours. Ask any cop, any DA, or any journalist and they will tell you the same thing. The problem is that once someone is accused of something, simply denying the accusation, or even actually refuting it won't undo the accusation. Let's say someone accuses you of being a child molester and you deny the charges. The denial does you little good when the very next day "Hayes Denies Molesting Child" is splashed across the front page of your local paper. Embedded in our moral codes and legal structures is a deep and profound understanding of the damage that rumours, lies, innuendo and unconfirmed accusations can do to a person. It's no accident that "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor" made it into the ten commandments. It's no accident that the hearsay is not allowed in criminal trials, and it's no accident that the Koran requires the testimony of two independent actual witnesses of adulterous copulation in order to convict someone of adultery. But we aren't in a court of law, here, we are in the proverbial court of public opinion. And while I wish the media did a better job of identifying outrageously false claims, the fundamental problem is the difficult-to-dislodge notion that if a number of different people are repeating the same accusation, then it must be at least partially true. Bob Dole is using precisely this notion to sell the Swiffers bullshit: "He's got himself into this wicket now where he can't extricate himself because not every one of these people can be Republican liars,'' said Mr. Dole, whose right arm was left limp by a war injury. "There's got to be some truth to the charges," he said. On it's face it does seem implausible that all these different people, from former Vets, to talk show hosts, to conservative commentators could all be telling the same lies. I mean, it's not like there's some hotline they call to get briefed on what false accusations to hurl, or some listserv they all subscribe to so they'll be on message everytime they appear on cable talk shows. Well, actually, that's exactly how it works. Just ask Bob Dole (from Liberal Oasis): After his outrageous comments on Sunday that Kerry did not bleed in Vietnam, Bob Dole returned to CNN Monday to defend himself. When trying to argue he was not dispatched by the Bush campaign, he revealed a little too much about how the Sunday Talkshow game works: DOLE: I never had any contact with the Bush people. They have a little number you call in before you go on these shows I guess if you want to get briefed for Sunday shows. [But] I didn't talk to anybody. I don't think I needed to talk to anybody. BLITZER: You said that there's some sort of recording you can call up and get information before you go out on these Sunday shows. What exactly does that mean? DOLE: I think when anybody's going to be on a Sunday show, there's a conference call number if you want, I guess, get updated on the facts. At least I got some e-mail saying if you want to get any information, call a certain number. I didn't do that. I don't know if anybody else does that. But I guess it's just probably to stay on message, whatever.

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Christopher Hayes is the host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes. He is an editor at large at the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times.
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