I’m no fan of the current war on “misinformation” — if anything, I’m a conscientious objector — and one of the reasons is the term’s pedigree.
Although the Grammar Curmudgeon in me freely admits that the word is a perfectly fine one, the effort by public and private sector alike to hunt down misinformers to keep them from misinforming the public represents a return to the bad old days that once upon a time liberalism sensibly opposed.
First, as to the word itself.
The Oxford English Dictionary traces “misinformation” in its current sense to the late 16th century. In 1786, while serving as ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson used the word to deride the claim that the U.S. Congress had at one point sat in Hartford, Connecticut.
In 1817, as every first-year law student knows, the U.S. Supreme Court used the word as part of a shaky effort to define fraud. In the run-up to the Civil War, supporters of the newly formed Republican Party denounced as misinformation the notion that they harbored “hostile aims against the South.”
Depending on context, the word can even take on a haughty drawing-room quality. Sir Hugo Latymer, the protagonist of Noel Coward’s tragic farce “A Song at Twilight,” discovers that his ex-lover Carlotta believes that she has the legal right to publish his letters to Hugo’s ex-lover Perry. Says the haughty Hugo: “I fear you have been misinformed.” (Writers have been imitating the line ever since.)
True, according to the always excellent Quote Investigator, a popular Mark Twainism about how reading the news makes you misinformed is apocryphal. QI does remind us, however, that there’s a long history of writers and politicians using the term as one of denunciation.
Which leads us to the pedigree problem.
Chances are you’ve never heard of the old Federated Press. It was founded in the 1918 as a left-leaning competitor to the Associated Press and died 30 years later, deserted by hundreds of clients after being declared by the U.S. Congress a source of “misinformation.”
Translation: The Congress didn’t like its point of view.
But the Federated Press was hardly alone. For the Red-hunters of the McCarthy Era, “misinformation” became a common term of derision. As early as 1945, the right-leaning syndicated columnist Paul Mallon complained that “the left wing” was “glibly” spreading “misinformation about American foreign policy” — and, worse, that others “were being gradually influenced by their thinking.”
In a 1953 U.S. Senate hearing on “Communist Infiltration of the Army” — yes, that’s what the hearing was called — Soviet defector Igor Bogolepov (popular among the McCarthyites) assured the eager committee members that a pamphlet about Siberia distributed by the U.S. Army contained “a lot of deliberate misinformation which serves the interest of the communist cause.”
A report issued by the Senate Judiciary Committee three years later begins: “The average American is unaware of the amount of misinformation about the Communist Party, USA, which appears in the public press, in books and in the utterances of public speakers.” Later on, the report provides a list of groups that exist “for the purpose of promulgating communist ideas and misinformation into the bloodstream of public opinion.” Second on the list is the (by then dying) Federated Press.
In 1957, the chief counsel of a Senate subcommittee assured the members that “misinformation” distributed by “some of our State Department officials” had “proved to be helpful to the communist cause and detrimental to the cause of the United States.”
The habit lingered into the 1960s, when — lest we forget — President John F. Kennedy and his New Frontiersman were adamant about the need to combat the communist threat. “International communism is expending great efforts to spread misinformation about the United States among ill-informed peoples around the world,” warned the Los Angeles Times in a 1961 editorial. The following year, Attorney General Robert Kennedy gave a major address in which he argued that America’s ideological setbacks abroad were the result of — you guessed it — communist “misinformation.”
I’m not suggesting that “misinformation” is always an unhelpful word. My point is that for anyone who takes history seriously, the sight of powerful politicians and business leaders joining in a campaign to chase misinformation from public debate conjures vicious images of ideological overreaching that devastated lives and livelihoods.
I’ve written in this space before about the federal government’s deliberate destruction of the career of my great-uncle Alphaeus Hunton, based largely on his role as a trustee for the Civil Rights Congress, a group labeled by the Senate as — you guessed it — a purveyor of “misinformation.”
So forgive me if, in this burgeoning war on misinformation, I remain a resister. America has been down this road before, and the results were ugly.
I’m old-fashioned enough to believe that your freedom to shout what I consider false is the best protection for my freedom to shout what I consider true. I won’t deny a certain pleasurable frisson as the right cowers before what was once its own weapon of choice. And I quite recognize that falsehoods, if widely believed, can lead to bad outcomes. Nevertheless, I’m terrified at the notion that the left would want to return to an era when those in power are applauded for deciding which views constitute misinformation.
So if the alternatives are a boisterous, unruly public debate, where people sometimes believe falsehoods; and a well-ordered public debate where the ability to make one’s point is effectively subject to the whims of officially assigned truth-sayers; the choice is easy: I’ll take the unruly and boisterous every time.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”
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