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With So Many Pinocchios in Power, What's a Kid to Think?

June 20, 2003|Susan E. Tifft

When I began teaching at Duke, I was pleased to find that the university had an honor code exhorting students to promise they wouldn't "lie, cheat or steal" in their academic endeavors. But now I regard the pledge as a quaint artifact.

How can young people take seriously such a vow when everywhere they look they see successful grown-ups getting ahead by playing fast and loose with the truth?

Every day brings fresh accusations that President Bush and his advisors stretched intelligence to get the United States into a war in Iraq, while the one feel-good story of the conflict -- the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch -- is looking increasingly phony. At least three independent media investigations (the British Broadcasting Corp., the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post) have cast doubt on the initial heroic narrative and questioned whether the military manipulated the episode for propaganda purposes.

In the private sector, Martha Stewart is just the latest business icon to morph into a mug shot. And at the New York Times, up-and-comer Jayson Blair got his comeuppance for fabricating and plagiarizing stories, followed by fellow Timesman Rick Bragg, who admitted passing off a stringer's work as his own. What's a kid to think?

Lying in the service of power, money and advancement -- or simply to avoid embarrassment -- is nothing new. Bill Clinton lied about having sex "with that woman"; Richard Nixon lied about his abuse of power during the Watergate scandal. Lyndon Johnson lied about American destroyers being attacked by the North Vietnamese in the Gulf of Tonkin. What is different today -- thanks in part to around-the-clock media coverage and the peculiar American habit of making celebrities of the fallen -- is that kids see lies, half-truths and hype not as aberrations but as the norm.

"What do you expect?" one student asked with a shrug last spring as my class discussed yet another government assertion that had turned out to be false. "It's business as usual."

A survey released last fall by the Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles found that high school students today were more likely to lie, cheat and steal than their counterparts 10 years ago. Nearly three-quarters said they had cheated on an exam in the last year (up from 61% in 1992), and 37% said they would stretch the truth to get a job.

This Pinocchio culture has made kids alarmingly cynical: 43% agree that a person has to lie and cheat sometimes to get ahead, up nine points since 2000. The irony is that on many issues -- school prayer and abortion, to name just two -- young people today are more conservative than their elders. Yet they are surprisingly blase about shading the truth.

They weren't born that way. They learned it from us.

One day soon they will be our politicians, lawyers, teachers, CEOs, auto mechanics and pilots, and they'll bring to those jobs the values they're absorbing now. Honor codes? Who knows whether they make a difference on college campuses? But the moment has come for our country's leading adults to sign one.

Susan E. Tifft is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University and coauthor of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind the New York Times" (Little, Brown and Co., 1999).

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