Corporate media, confused about its role in a democracy, seems unwilling to discern fact from falsehood, as in: “Earlier this year the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief insisted that the Wall Street Journal wouldn’t label Trump’s false statements as ‘lies’. Lying,” said the editor, “requires a deliberate intention to mislead, which couldn’t be proven in Trump’s case.” The argument apparently retains its legitimacy regardless of the frequency of fact checking or lie telling.

The legal system appears equally flummoxed (and seems to set the intellectual groundwork for the media) when called upon to discern fact from fiction: “The term ‘fraud’ is generally defined in the law as an intentional misrepresentation of material existing fact made by one person to another with knowledge of its falsity and for the purpose of inducing the other person to act, and upon which the other person relies with resulting injury or damage.” Under this logic and analogous to climate change: if I enter a smoke-filled theater and, with claimed good intentions and to the best of my knowledge, enjoin the audience to remain seated, I am legally not liable for fraud or injuries.

It doesn’t seem to matter if the uninformed claimant, say the POTUS, has unbridled access to the best knowledge and technology in the history of humanity. We are told by the law that persistent ignorance of reality is defensible under the First Amendment, as in: “I do not believe in the climate change, therefore my statements — and policies — denying climate change are not fraudulent and are defensible under the Constitution.” This may be the legal eye of the needle through which humanity is sacrificed to the reality of climate change on the grounds that “he claims he doesn’t know.” To see this legal defense in action, Google ExxonKnew. 

My cynical eye is further sharpened when I note that, in stark contrast, the legal system demands that ignorance of its laws is not a defense: “Ignorance of law excuses no one is a legal principle holding that a person who is unaware of a law may not escape liability for violating that law merely because one was unaware of its content.” And: “Even though it would be impossible, even for someone with substantial legal training, to be aware of every law in operation in every aspect of a state’s activities, this is the price paid to ensure that willful blindness cannot become the basis of exculpation. Thus, it is well settled that persons engaged in any undertakings outside what is common for a normal person, such as running a nuclear power plant, will make themselves aware of the laws necessary to engage in that undertaking. If they do not, they cannot complain if they incur liability.” Thus, the POTUS will do well to surround himself with clever lawyers, but not knowledgeable scientists. 

In sum: ignorance of reality is legally defensible (and may not be called out by a supine media), but ignorance of the law is indefensible. And, to grant crazy its due, willful blindness is unrecognized as ploy or motive of the uninformed bloviator/policy maker, but is vigorously and preemptively protected against in the case of the uninformed lawbreaker. No wonder confusion pervades the land when legal fictions hold sway over facts of nature. 

Is there intelligence behind which ignorance — of reality or of the law — is protected, or simply provincialism? Is contempt of court permissible when ignorance of reality is legally protected, while ignorance of the law “in reality” is indefensible?

I’m thinking both the media and the law, to refresh their legitimacy, need to come back to first principles, organize their priorities, and constructively contribute to the pressing and just needs of our time. 

Tom Boothby, Montville