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Inside the newsroom: Fighting 'a moral imperative' to deceive

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., listens during a news conference with members of the Progressive Caucus in Washington, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., listens during a news conference with members of the Progressive Caucus in Washington, Monday, Nov. 12, 2018.
Susan Walsh, AP

The New York Times was among the first to write about the deception, a social media campaign titled "Dry Alabama."

"Sign the petition today," reads the invitation to the Republican and Democratic candidates, an apparent effort to suggest that Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore wanted to push to get rid of alcohol in the state.

Wrote the Times:

"Along with a companion Twitter feed, the Facebook page appeared to be the work of Baptist teetotalers who supported the Republican, Roy S. Moore, in the 2017 Alabama Senate race. 'Pray for Roy Moore,' one tweet exhorted."

But it was fake, part of a multi-pronged campaign by Democrats to take down the embattled Republican, accused of bad behavior with underaged girls. He would eventually lose the race.

Moore had real issues to deal with and voters made their determination. But here's what's so disturbing about this week's revelation: An activist who worked on the project told the Times that while he hopes the practice of deception is outlawed one day, until then, he says it's got to be done:

“If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” Matt Osborne, described as a progressive activist, told the Times. “You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”

Is this what it has come to? Do whatever it takes?

Dirty tricks have been around since deceptive articles and political cartoons dominated newspapers during the early years of the nation's founding. And the Richard Nixon years were marked by dirty tricks and the Watergate coverup, leading to his resignation.

But this seems to be something different. Not just truth but also personal integrity is taking a hit. Some now believe, as Osborn stated, that there is a "moral imperative" to deceive, to act in any way that brings about a desired result.

New Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., dipped into this territory this week when she was challenged on "60 Minutes" for her apparent "fuzzy math" on defense department waste. Her response:

“If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees. I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

There certainly is room for a politician or anyone to make a misstatement or a mistake. But deliberate efforts to deceive hurt the country, whether it's Democrats or Republicans engaging in the deception. And the public now seems more accepting of the deception, as long as it's a deception that favors their point of view.

As Deseret News journalist Jennifer Graham reported this week in her story headlined "Will honesty and integrity be on trial in 2019":

"Lies have consequences. Multiple lies have multiple consequences, including a breakdown in social cohesion and the basic trust upon which a society functions," Kim B. Serota, a researcher in Scottsdale, Arizona, who studies deception, has written.

Donald Trump and his administration remain under fire for his statements — and "alternative facts" — as his adviser Kellyanne Conway famously called them. That sparked a media debate this week about whether the networks and cable outlets should broadcast his Oval Office speech last Tuesday. Should a question-free forum be given to the president if he has a record of ends-justify-the-means alternative fact-giving?

Broadcaster Anderson Cooper went so far as to offer a "prebuttal" on CNN Tuesday, speaking of the president's "crisis of credibility" with many in America. That, too, brought more debate on the role of media as the nation deals with truth and integrity, or the lack of it.

There is a need to find common ground on the value of honesty and integrity, and that's what famed journalist Bob Woodward and Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will discuss in a Monday forum together with Michael Dimock, president of Pew Research Center, in a Deseret News-sponsored forum at the Newseum in Washington.

Woodward told Deseret News opinion editor Boyd Matheson in the podcast, "Therefore, what?" this week that restraint is needed:

"Well, I think the ends don't justify the means. And we need to really, really be careful about that," Woodward said. "And you've just got to be cool. I have the luxury of time working on books. So I can work for a year or two on one, don't have to rush to print, can try to get specifics, documents and meeting notes. And it's the authenticity."

Authenticity means there can be no moral imperative to deceive for selfish gains. Convening a conversation between Elder Christofferson, who as a young law clerk to Judge John Sirica of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was the first to hear the Watergate tapes, and Woodward will bring a lively discussion on the costs of dishonesty and deception.