A more common issue than outright lying is that people of good faith resent facts that run contrary to their beliefs and assumptions. The nineteenth- century American humorist Josh Billings said it best: "It ain't ignorance that causes all the trouble in this world. It's the things people know that ain't so." No institution has a monopoly of vice in these matters — not governments, trade unions, company heads, lawyers, academia, or the press. In what came to be known as the thalidomide affair in Britain, children were born with deformities — a shortened arm, or no arm at all, or no leg, or completely limbless — because the mothers had taken a prenatal drug prescribed by the National Health Service. They were left to endure their ordeal without help or compensation, a shocking situation that persisted for a decade because the government and the lawyers representing the families assumed that the children had been the victims of an unforeseeable disaster. The lawyers sincerely believed they were making the best of a bad case, but the argument for adequate compensation, properly investigated by the Sunday Times, was overwhelming. Revealing it brought furious lawsuits, led by the government of the day, with the attorney general accusing me and the newspaper of contempt of court, punishable by a jail sentence.
Independent reporting has a history of provoking denunciation. Take the legend that "unpatriotic" reporters lost Vietnam. It doesn't stand up to serious examination. Print and TV journalists supportively reported the war in the context of cold war ideology: they wanted the United States to win. What maddened them were the little deceptions of the U.S. government, the hubris of its generals, the corrupt incompetence of the South Vietnamese establishment, and the way the political military bureaucracy deceived itself into telling Washington what it wanted to hear. The corrective correspondents did a real service, and too many of them were killed doing it. Similarly, early in the Iraq War, the George W. Bush administration charged that the reporters on the ground were being lazy, foolish, cowardly, and unpatriotic for reporting that the country was on a vicious downward spiral. It was. The administration deceived itself, and no good came of that. Indeed, a more accurate charge against the press on Iraq would be that it hadn't been patriotic enough before the war began. Faced with a secretive administration bent on war come what may and a popular clamor for post- 9/11 revenge, the press forsook its true function. The real national interest required the most searching examination of the reasons for sending thousands of people to their deaths, and it did not get it.