Suzanne Fields

Mr. Wallace, my opinion is not all that important. I went to a little Jesuit school in Buffalo called Canisius, and the priests taught us never to lie, but if you had to lie, never lie about facts. -- Michael Scheuer, former CIA agent

Michael Scheuer was chief of the bin Laden Unit at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999, charged with finding the mastermind who would one day plot and direct 9/11. He's a harsh critic of the Bush administration's conduct of the war in Iraq, and he is unequivocal and unrelenting in his dispute of Bill Clinton's assertion that he never had opportunities to kill Osama bin Laden.

"Mr. Richard Clarke, Mr. Sandy Berger, President Clinton are lying about the opportunities they had to kill [him]," he told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. "That's the plain truth, the exact truth."

He didn't stop there. He put the issue in the moral context of lying. In Washington, where cynicism abounds and both parties accuse the other of lying about the facts of the war in Iraq and of the larger war against terror, it's refreshing to be reminded that leaders shouldn't lie. Lying corrupts the democratic system, and free speech depends on our ability to separate lies from truth. That is increasingly hard to do in our multimedia culture.

How we receive facts determines how we understand them. That's what Marshall McLuhan meant when he famously said "the medium is the message." Television is the "cool medium" because it provides less information than newspapers but appeals to our senses through the swift progression of images. Newspapers and radio make up the "hot medium" because they demand less attention from the senses and more from the reasoning part of the brain.

All this was (and is) fairly esoteric, if not fanciful, and no one knows what Mr. McLuhan would say now about words that pop and crackle on the Internet. Television news is so hyped by aggressive music between segments that you get the feeling the producers are afraid viewers will fall asleep but for the thumping beats. (They might be right.)

Often television news feels like a three-ring circus as information unrelated to what's actually being talked about dances before our eyes. During serious interviews on Fox News, the four pundits who will interpret what is said when the interview is over pop up like cutout puppets in the corner of the screen as though they're exiles from a show for children.

This visual process in fact works best for children, who are accustomed to Sesame Street, where singing and dancing letters and numbers make learning fun. But it's getting harder for adults to separate entertainment from information, the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the lie.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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