Opinion: When hearsay crowds out the truth

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
Font Size:

While Matt is on holiday, he has selected a few of his “greatest hits” to re-run until he returns next week. This originally ran at Politico on June 28, 2011.

‘Perception is reality.” Benjamin Franklin said that. Not really, but if I write it, you blog it and someone else tweets it, we can make this misattributed quotation common knowledge by the end of the week.

Regardless of who said it, or who people think said it, at some point, truth takes a back seat to hearsay, especially when it comes to quoting (and misquoting) the words of politicians. When this happens, the misquote — which is often unflattering — spreads like wildfire, irrevocably altering the reputation of the person being misquoted. This is a problem.

The best recent example of this may be Sarah Palin’s “I can see Russia from my house.” This is one of the quotes most often associated with Palin. But she never said it; comedian Tina Fey did in her “Saturday Night Live” Palin impression. Instead, Palin said, “You can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska” (which, it turns out, you can). Regardless, many people took this misquote as fact, reaffirming for themselves the “Caribou Barbie” impression they had of Palin.

Al Gore suffered a similar fate. His “I took the initiative in creating the Internet” was quickly turned into “I invented the Internet” by those eager to find fault with him. For many, this quote cemented mental images of a self-important professional politician looking to get ahead.

And then there’s a much older case of misremembered language, by Charles Erwin Wilson, secretary of defense under President Dwight Eisenhower from 1953 to 1957. Before his appointment as secretary, Wilson was the president of auto giant General Motors. For many, he is remembered as the egotistical, corrupt businessman who said, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.” But he didn’t say that. He did, however, say, “For years, I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” while reflecting on his time at GM.

Read the entire article at Politico

Matt K. Lewis