A stain on the character of conservatism

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THERE'S an old saying among reporters: "If your mom says she loves you, get a second source."

I always thought it was just a laugh line.

Even though we journalists do the kind of work that requires us to be professional skeptics, most people we deal with are honorable and truthful. Like everybody else, we need to believe most people are good or the kind of things we find ourselves dealing with on a regular basis - coverage of violent crimes, horrific accidents, graft and corruption - would scar our souls and harden our hearts.

So as a reporter I've tried to practice the advice my 90-year-old father gave me when I was just a boy on the farm: "Trust a man's word until he shows you that you can't, and then never trust him again."

I'M REMINDED of that piece of folk wisdom while reading the Washington Post's coverage of a plot by a right-wing outfit called Project Veritas to infiltrate the paper, deceive its reporters and plant a false story related to the U.S. Senate race in Alabama in an attempt to discredit journalism.

A woman apparently spent months bouncing around events and places journalists gathered, trying to insinuate herself into situations. Eventually she approached Post reporters, claiming Judge Roy Moore - the Republican Senate nominee in Alabama, accused by several women of misconduct with juvenile females - had impregnated her when she was a teenager.

All of it was a lie, including the phony name she used. Instead of taking the bait, Post reporters began to suspect she was not telling the truth. They checked her background and found ties to right-wing groups and provocative social media posts. They staked her out and saw her entering the offices of Project Veritas. The group is known for sending operatives out to tell lies and try to deceive people or organizations disdained by the hard right, often in an effort to produce hidden audio or video of a damning nature. Sometimes it has worked. Sometimes it has failed spectacularly.

But always it has been based on lies and deception, trying to prod targets into embarrassing situations, all to produce an "ah-ha" moment that appears to back up the conspiracy theories of the Far Right.

IT IS A despicable tactic. One of the things would-be reporters learn in Journalism 101 is it's unethical to seek truth while lying to get it. The reason is obvious. Why should any reader believe us if we lied in pursuit of a story? That's an absolute disconnect. You can't build truth on lies. There are plenty of other strategies and much better ways to gather information ethically.

On Tuesday of this week, at the regular full-staff meeting of Beloit Daily News journalists, I had a talk with colleagues I never expected to have. And it went against my dad's advice.

Essentially, I told them not to trust anyone, ever. Be wary at all times of the people who approach us with stories to tell. Check out who you are talking to and look for signs of deception. If you don't know the source, from previous reliable encounters, assume there's reason to suspect their motives.

So, for those we may not know well approaching us with information, anticipate another layer of questions and checks intended to delve deeper into who you are and why you are on our doorstep.

AS A rural-born American farm kid, basic conservatism always came naturally. Except for flirtation with a more left-leaning perspective over the Vietnam war and the presidency of Richard Nixon - I thought, then and now, Vietnam was a war we shouldn't have fought and that Nixon was a crooked goon - my political views always have been shaped by what one learns on the land, independence and self-reliance.

I still think of myself as a libertarian-leaning conservative, but something has gone dreadfully wrong around the edges of the right. What once was a movement based on fiscal restraint, individual freedom, character, morals and manners, self-reliance and strong national defense, has allowed itself to be weighted down by a segment that represents something much darker. The only individual freedoms that fringe acknowledges are those reflecting narrow, inflexible values, with a hateful snarl for everybody else. A strong national defense does not mean bullying or insulting other countries or leaders, or withdrawing from the world. Character, morals and manners are not compatible with lies, deceptions and conspiracy theories detached from facts.

It is painful to watch otherwise honorable conservatives contort themselves in a pathetic attempt either to ignore or distance themselves from the unpardonable excesses of the lunatic fringe, all in the name of the legislative initiative du jour. Down that road lies ruin for the movement of fiscal sanity, liberty, self-reliance and Old World character.

THERE'S another old rural saying: People who lie down with dogs get fleas.

And so it is with outfits that equate lies with truth; personal liberties with tribal animosities; character with political preferences; morals and manners with ideological outcomes; foreign affairs, domestic acceptance and religious tolerance with a narrow vision of national identity.

The conservatism I learned long ago as that farm boy is better than this. It never would require the trust-no-one talk I had with our journalists, who - like their brothers and sisters at the Washington Post and so many other reputable newsrooms - work hard every day to separate truth from lies in the public interest.

I don't like this, from the movement that has defined my family's values for generations. Embracing the unethical, the deceptive and the indecent does not advance the cause of conservatism - it stains conservatism's character and soul.

William R. Barth is the Editor of the Beloit Daily News.

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