Speaking Truth or Error to Power

The phrase “speak truth to power,” has found its way into the common vocabulary of virtually any group seeking to criticize the government. Use of the phrase is somewhat self-aggrandizing since it presumes the correctness of the speaker and a heroic stance toward power.

The phrase originated in a Quaker pamphlet issued in 1955. The pamphlet offered a non-violent alternative to the Cold War. It argued that anything other than their pacifist approach would fail. As a consequence of the Cold War, they said, “American prestige abroad has declined seriously, and we have lost much of the good will that was formerly ours.”

The vantage point provided by 50 years suggests that the Quaker alternative was not quite so true, or at least not the only viable solution to Soviet expansion. Yet, we can also agree that we are collectively better off that their alternative was passionately presented. Speaking error as well as truth to power is important.

This notion is the key to understanding the value of the First Amendment. We do not want the government to decide what is “true” so we permit all voices to make their case confident that the truth with ultimately be recognized. Indeed, the formulation “speak truth to power” can unintentionally undermine the First Amendment. If we only permit truth to be spoken to power, the government could presumably use its version of truth to crowd out or suppress other voices.

The principle that all voices should be able to speak is what makes the September 7 letter from Senate Democrats to Walt Disney Company so pernicious. The issue a hand is the mini-series “The Path to 9/11” to be broadcast on the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Apparently, Democrats are upset because they believe the mini-series unfairly portrays President Clinton as being so distracted by the Monica Lewinsky affair that he did not devote sufficient attention to the growing threat of Osama Bin Laden. A number of opportunities to capture or kill bin Laden were lost.

Put aside for a moment whether Senate Democrats are rightly or wrongly upset about the mini-series. Nay, let us assume for our purposes here that the mini-series is grossly inaccurate and unfair. Then, by all means, opponents should make a loud public case against the mini-series. Show where the mini-series fails to provide an accurate picture of the years before 9/11. Such a critique falls within the legitimate bounds of debate.

While the Senate letter did criticize the mini-series directly, its second paragraph tries to intimidate the Walt Disney Company (the owner of ABC) into pulling or editing the mini-series. The Senators remind the company that:

“The Communications Act of 1934 provides your network with a free broadcast license predicated on the fundamental understanding of your principle obligation to act as a trustee of the public airwaves in serving the public interest. Nowhere is this public interest obligation more apparent than in the duty of broadcasters to serve the civic needs of a democracy by promoting an open and accurate discussion of political ideas and events.”

The not so subtle implication is that if the mini-series is not made to conform with the government’s (or at least these Senators’) understanding of the truth, then perhaps ABC’s broadcast license could be in jeopardy. It is unfortunate that the instinctive reaction of some on the Left is totalitarian.

At this point, we do not know how or whether ABC will alter the mini-series whether in response to legitimate critiques or out of intimidation. In all likelihood, the protest by Senate Democrats may backfire by calling more attention to Clinton’s lack of response to bin Laden then the mini-series could have alone.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.