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Honesty is the best policy

Honesty is the best policy

Monday, October 15, 2012, 16:45 GMT+7

Dishonesty does exist, to varying degrees, just about everywhere in society. Sometimes we refer to "white lies" that are told to protect somebody's feelings, especially our own. The old saying holds that "Honesty is the best policy," but there are exceptions to this policy. Usually it's wrong to lie, but sometimes it's wrong to tell the truth. Telling a lie can be the right and moral course of action. As an extreme example, a well-placed lie or disinformation can save innocent people from a horrible fate. But in normal daily life, honesty is usually the best course of action.

There are lies, falsehoods and distortions in many aspects of American society. The smart response is to simply be aware and approach life with a healthy skepticism. To use a historic example, I point to the Declaration of Independence, which declared, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal." And so on. A lofty, noble ideal – but remember that this was 18th century America and many signers of this declaration owned slaves. So that's dishonesty and hypocrisy on an epic scale.

In American schools, parents have the primary role of teaching this value of honesty. I remember my mother saying, "Shame on you!" and sending me to my room for bad behavior, and I'm sure lying was part of it. Teachers play a role as well. Students may receive failing grades, for example, if they are caught cheating on a test or plagiarizing somebody else's work. In addition to academic grades, many teachers give grades regarding behavior.

As a reporter I think it's extremely important that journalists, 99 percent of the time, should identify themselves and explain what they are researching. Having said that, however, there are occasions when situational ethics come into play. An investigative reporter may sometimes engage in deception, perhaps a white lie, to get at the higher truth of an important issue. There are situations in which the ends justify the means, and some gray areas as well. For example, there are situations in which I simply want to observe what's happening, and I'm afraid that identifying myself as a reporter will alter what I am witnessing.

In America, professional journalists are expected to be paid by their employer, and never take cash from the subject of an article, which would compromise the reporter's independence. I don't mean to suggest that American journalism is pristine, and in fact the pay-to-play aspect is getting worse as revenue to media companies decline because of the impact of the Internet. The advent of the blogosphere has also created some dubious journalists who take payments and expensive products in exchange for favorable reviews and promotion across the Web. Some small newspaper publishers, meanwhile, are essentially selling space to local businesses not for advertising, but for favorable feature stories.

In recent years, the reputation of American journalism has been tarnished by more scandalous dishonesty – by a few reporters, including one at the New York Times, who was determined to be simply writing fictitious news stories based on non-existent interviews with non-existent confidential sources.

I do think foolish people prefer sweet lies – and their ranks seem to be growing. The other day I saw an editorial cartoon depicting a cinema about with two box offices and two screens – one for "An Inconvenient Truth," about man-made climate change, and the other for a make-believe film called "A Comforting Lie." Nobody was going to see Gore's film and a crowd was flocking to the other. Many people simply believe what they want to believe and refuse to be swayed by powerful evidence. The Internet, it seems, has not helped this situation because it gets flooded with so much misinformation and disinformation.

I've been here for nearly two years. My general impression is that the Vietnamese people are more honest than I expected. Not much different from home. A couple of times I think taxi drivers tried to rip me off, but this is very much the exception to the rule.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, because from my Vietnamese American wife's family, I have learned that Vietnamese are known for being candid and downright blunt. For example, a Vietnamese might be more likely tell a friend, "Gee, you've gotten fat," while a typical American might think it but not say anything. It's a bit ironic, because Vietnamese are sometimes reluctant to speak their minds about civic matters. I think honesty and candor are the best ways to address serious problems.

Scott Harris


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