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How Oprah, a printing press and some red pen show who’s responsible for truth

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A photo of an unfinished proof of the Deseret News.

Boyd Matheson

In 1874 John Jaques worked for the Deseret News in the position I now occupy — with oversight of opinion and editorials. Every day from my 5th floor office I look directly at a replica of the printing press the pioneers dragged across the American plains. I am sure Jaques worked much harder on that wrought-iron press, spilled more ink, struggled with type-set and faced greater challenges than I do in my computer-controlled publishing system today. One thing we have in common, however, that transcends the decades in between our time in the opinion editor’s chair, is our commitment to truth.

In the late 1840s, Jaques was a young missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England. He must have spent a great deal of time contemplating the question of what truth actually is and how he could live the truth with trust-building integrity. While he didn’t have a 24/7 news cycle to contend with or a vast internet of innuendo to corral, he did feel compelled to explore the truth. 

Jaques took up his pen, as writers often do, to perhaps turn a phrase to capture his thinking. The result was the poem, “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” It concludes “Then say, what is truth? ’Tis the last and the first, for the limits of time it steps o’er. Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst, truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst, eternal, unchanged, evermore.”

Often in the quiet of predawn I find myself at the office staring at the printing press as I search for ideas, principles and truth to share. The first rays of the morning sun regularly stretch across my office and illuminate the press. The sun’s reflection causes me to reflect on Jaques and others who have sat in my chair. I regularly consider their commitment to shine light on the principles of light and truth. 

In the age of fake news, confirmation bias, social media echo chambers, alternate facts and straight-up lies, the looming question for me is, “Who is responsible for truth?” Every day, prominent national media personalities, politicians and business executives demonstrate through their words and actions that they do not want to be responsible for, and many are not interested in, truth. So, who is responsible for truth?

In 2018, early in my stint as opinion editor, I had been wanting to write about truth. In May I informed my editorial assistant, Christian Sagers, of my intent to write on truth that week. As my Thursday spun into unexpected meetings and my writing time evaporated, I told him to just hold my spot on the page. At 5 p.m., while I was in the middle of playing guest host on a national radio program, Christian brought me the proofs for the printed paper. At the bottom the page was my picture and a placeholder headline. In red pen Christian had scrawled, “Truth will be written here.”

The answer to my question about who is responsible for truth was right in front of me in bright red ink. I am responsible for truth.

Several years ago, Oprah Winfrey delivered a fiery commencement speech to the graduating class of the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Journalism. In addition to wise counsel and humor indicative of such an occasion, she challenged the graduates to embrace, live and be the truth.

In the crescendo of her address, Winfrey implored, “So your job now, let me tell you, is to take everything you’ve learned here and use what you learned to challenge the left, to challenge the right and the center. When you see something, you say something, and you say it with the facts and the reporting to back it up. Here’s what you have to do: You make the choice every day, every single day, to exemplify honesty because the truth, let me tell you something about the truth, the truth exonerates and it convicts. It disinfects and it galvanizes. The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption, our shield against greed and despair. The truth is our saving grace. And not only are you here, USC Annenberg, to tell it, to write it, to proclaim it, to speak it, but to be it. Be the truth. Be the truth.” 

“The truth has always been and will always be our shield against corruption, our shield against greed and despair.” — Oprah Winfrey

I found it significant that Winfrey did not challenge the students to be “their” truth, as is popular among the moral relativists of today. She told them to be the truth.

William George Jordan powerfully made the case for truth in 1902: “Truth can stand alone, for it needs no chaperone or escort. Lies are cowardly, fearsome things that must travel in battalions … A lie may live for a time, truth for all time. A lie never lives by its own vitality; it merely continues to exist because it simulates truth.”

Each of us has a responsibility for truth, to speak it, find it, promote it, act on it and even defend it. We should also recognize we have an equally significant responsibility for how we speak the truth. Someone wisely suggested that we can talk about any truth as long as we understand that how we speak about it matters. I have heard the same truth from the arrogant and the angry as well as the humble and courageous — with vastly different results.

I should also add that when we speak the truth is also important. Few things are more jarring than a truth spoken at the worst possible moment. The I-told-you-so truth, while still true, does little to elevate others, create space for learning or improve a situation. Hitting people over the head with truth in the heat of an argument is contrary to the nature and power of truth.

Jordan posited that our individual responsibility for truth rests on four pillars — the love of truth, the search for truth, faith in truth and a determination to work to advance truth.

Each of us is responsible for truth. We need a greater commitment to truth throughout the world and particularly on the World Wide Web. 

I continue to strive to live up to the lofty standard of truth Jaques and others who have occupied the opinion editor chair here at the Deseret News established over the years. I recognize that I am responsible. In truth, each of us are truly responsible for the truth. 

As I continue to write columns in this space, I am also determined to live up to the challenge of my wise-beyond-his-years colleague: “Truth will be written here.”

Portions of this column were published on May 19, 2018.

Correction: A previous version misspelled the name of the author of “Oh Say, What Is Truth?” It is John Jaques, not John Jacques.