Why did Time fabricate a quote? Correct

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“Jerry, just remember. It’s not a lie if you believe it.” George Costanza, “The Beard”, Seinfeld, Episode 102, 9 Feb 1995.

Time Magazine‘s “Swampland” blog appears to have fabricated a quote in its story about the revision of the Air Force Academy’s honor code. While one may well assume mistake or malice lay behind the creation of a quote, there is the suggestion of deeper purpose.

In reporting on the contretemps over the Academy’s honor code, Time might well have been making a statement on the purposelessness of honor codes in general. Could it be asking the philosophical question: “What is truth?” — offering an answer drawn from deconstructionism that posits that truth exists only in the eye of the beholder?

Follow me through this tale and tell me if you see what I see.

When published on 28 October 2013 the article entitled “On a Wing, But Not On a Prayer” the article began:

While there may be no atheists in foxholes, the Air Force Academy has decided there will be no mandatory God in the heavens. The academy — at 7.258 feet above sea level, the closest of all the nation’s military schools to God’s realm — has long had a reputation as the most Christian of the nation’s military learning institutions. But the Colorado Springs, Colo., academy has decided to make the “so help me God” coda to its cadet oath optional after a complaint from the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (not surprisingly, the Christian Fighter Pilot group denounced what it calls a “dramatic change” on its website).

The version that appears on Time‘s website as of 30 October 2013 is slightly different. The subordinate clause contained in the parentheses in the concluding sentence is absent. Perhaps this is due to the Christian Fighter Pilot group not having said what Time claims it said.

The Christian Fighter Pilot website noted:

After pointing out that this website did not “denounce” the decision (in fact, quite the opposite) and that the “dramatic change” comment was clearly facetious, [Time] deleted the reference.

Time corrected but did not note its error in the story. But the question how, or why, the error occurred remains. The Christian Fighter Pilot website suggested:

Given that [Time] clearly didn’t read the article, one wonders how he came to the conclusion that it was ”not surprising.”  It’s almost as if he has preconceived notions about Christians in the military.

That is certainly a possibility. It may well be that Time read the blog, but misunderstood what it read. Given the need for speed in preparing internet stories, misreading a source will happen. Or, the author relied upon information passed to him by a person whom he trusted — a form of the  “hat tip” [h/t] some bloggers use in citing the source of information in their posts (usually with attribution to the source), but often not confirming its veracity. Mistake rather than malice explains most sins.

The suggestion of bias raised by the Christian Fighter Pilot, however, finds support in the tone of the Time piece. On first reading I thought the Time piece somewhat heavy-handed in its approach to the story — “closest” to God, “no mandatory” God. To my ears these attempts at wit rang a false note. A wan smile was all that they elicited from me — juvenile, but not dreadful.

But other possibilities soon emerged.

The article stated:

The academy’s original honor code dates to 1959 and reads:

We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does.

But it was modified following a 1984 cheating scandal to read:

We will not lie, steal or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does. Furthermore, I resolve to do my duty and to live honorably, so help me God.

The phrase “so help me God” was tacked on “to add more seriousness to the oath,” according to a former faculty member. Apparently, there was a subset of Air Force cadets who would cheat absent God as a wingman.

If you read this honor code extract against the knowledge the Time story violated such an oath when it fabricated the Christian Fighter Pilot quote, its cleverness is apparent. By using the ironic device of making a false statement in reporting on a code of conduct that condemns false statements, Time might well have been playing a language-game on the moral efficacy of honor codes. Why else would it suggest that morality is conditional?

Does not Time write: “There was a subset of Air Force cadets who would cheat absent God as a wingman” ? E.g., bad actions are not sinful in and of themselves. Lies are wrong when they are discovered to be lies, not before. And who has the authority to determine what is truth?

Time appears to be arguing for a post-modernist view of truth based not on Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionism, but on Jean-François Lyotard ‘s arguments that truth is inseparable from the age and system to which it belongs.

In lieu of meta-narratives we have created new language-games in order to legitimize our claims which rely on changing relationships and mutable truths, none of which is privileged over the other to speak to ultimate truth. [Lyotard, The Post-Modern Condition, 1994]

Or, “It’s not a lie if you believe it.”

Is the Time team making the argument that as it believes the Christian Fighter Pilot would have denounced the revision of the honor code oath (in view of Time’s opinion of the Christian Fighter Pilot’s thinking), the fact that it did not denounce it is irrelevant? Did not CBS follow this line in what is now called the Dan Rather theory of journalism? “Fake but accurate“?

Or perhaps I have spent too much time on airplanes of late? There comes a time when to every man’s mind when the breaking point is reached when listening to Euro-pop. What say you Get Religion readers? Is a cigar sometimes just a cigar? “Fake but accurate”? A mistake? What?

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  • Brett

    All of my problems with the article’s snarky tone and now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t errors go away when I realize it probably wasn’t written by an adult.

    • tmatt

      Be real, not snarky. Written by an intern? Almost certainly not.

      What do you think of the SERIOUS issue here, the lack of an honest correction to this obvious mistake in reporting?

      • Brett

        They’re of a piece — Mr. Thompson may be a full reporter and over 18, but this piece has an adolescent tone and attitude nonetheless. Making a correction and pretending the error didn’t happen is like setting the broken lamp on the table. running outside before Mom comes back and acting like you just came in when she finds it. It’s juvenile and irresponsible, and it’s exactly what the opening sentence and the “not surprisingly” tone would lead me to expect.

        The matter makes me think if we were to ask him how he got it wrong, he would say something like, “Well, it’s fixed so it’s no big deal anyway.” Which again is a response I would figure to hear from an erring adolescent, so I just figure I’ll dismiss it.

  • Steve Bauer

    I do not get the impression that the writer is trying to be quite so deep. It comes across to me as just a snarky atheistic “if you need a god to get you to be moral, how moral are you really?” kind of comment.

    So if Time were to acknowledge this error, it would have to deal with this attitude of the author.

  • RayIngles

    First off..

    While there may be no atheists in foxholes

    There’s another falsehood by Time. It’s just not true.

    But:

    Does not Time write: “There was a subset of Air Force cadets who would cheat absent God as a wingman” ? E.g., bad actions are not sinful in and of themselves. Lies are wrong when they are discovered to be lies, not before. And who has the authority to determine what is truth?

    I’m not sure why “E.g.” is there. It doesn’t read quite right if you meant “For example”, which is what “e.g.” (exempla gratia) means. Did you actually mean “I.e.”, (id est) “That is,”?

    If so, you seem to be reaching. Simply noting that some people will cheat does not imply that cheating is right or wrong.

    • http://eacafe.blogspot.com/ roma_caput_mundi

      Thanks, King of Grammer.

      • RayIngles

        Why are you reading a journalism criticism site if you don’t care about the use of language?

        • George Conger

          The distinction you draw between E.g., and I.d. is correct. However, I meant to say E.g. or for example in offering the example of the argument.

          And, my argument about deconstructionism is my foray into snark.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I personally don’t think Time is really subtle enough to pull it off.

    Also, Time doesn’t seem to be arguing that cheating isn’t cheating or isn’t wrong if God isn’t a wingman. Or that the cadets who cheated didn’t believe that it was cheating, or that their cheating didn’t violate the oath somehow. Rather, they are just a little cynical that adding God to the oath is going to stop those who would violate the original oath.

    And they’re right about that, I think.

    I’m not sure that God in civil government is such a new phenomenon, as Time claims. After all, there is this proclamation by Lincoln: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/fast.htm
    Or this one: http://holydays.tripod.com/linc.htm
    What’s a new phenomenon, newer obviously than the “recent” additions of God to money and all, is the notion of stripping God out of civic life.

    • RayIngles

      ‘Not compelling cadets to swear to God’ is not the same thing as “stripping God out of civic life”.

      • AuthenticBioethics

        Hi Ray. I didn’t mean that, of course, because your statement is incontrovertible. I meant to refer to things that are quite well known to all, and which do in fact constitute “stripping God out of civic life.” Things like continual lawsuits since the 1960s to ban and punish prayer during government functions like school and Thanksgiving parades or to remove anything of a religious nature from courtrooms and public places, movements to remove “In God We Trust” from money, which has appeared on coins since 1864, and “under God” from the Pledge. The use of the Bible to swear in cout witnesses and public officials is an ancient practice, so far not extravagantly opposed. Yet.

        • RayIngles

          Are government functions the whole of “civic life”, then?

  • http://eacafe.blogspot.com/ roma_caput_mundi

    It definitely does have a snarky tone. “While there may be no atheists in foxholes, the Air Force Academy has decided there will be no mandatory God in the heavens. The academy — at 7.258 feet above sea level, the closest of all the nation’s military schools to God’s realm”

    Lines like these are juvenile. First, who believes the Air Force can decide if there is a “mandatory God in the heavens?” What does a phrase like that even mean?

    Second, “closest of all the nation’s military schools to God’s realm” appears to be an attempt at a joke, or something. Either the writer doesn’t know that no one thinks that God’s heaven is literally in the sky, or else he’s mocking believers. Either way, not a good sign for mature journalism. But Time has been in decline for a long while now, who really still takes it seriously?

    • JoFro

      Time – going the way of Newsweek!


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