Welcome to the See-Through Era
We live an age without secrets, or at least without safe secrets. If your reputation is based on people not finding out who you really are or what you really did, or whether you were a victim of a crime, you may be in trouble. Think of grand juries, the Central Intelligence Agency, Sony’s hacked computer system, Bill Cosby or the credibility of Rolling Stone magazine.
That may not be bad news: The more people believe their secrets will eventually come out, the better. Consider grand juries: They can keep secrets for a period, but video recorders don’t. We still don’t know how the panel that weighed the police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, voted, but we know how it was manipulated. And when the feds are done investigating, we’ll know even more.
Grand juries are reputed to be rubber stamps for prosecutors. A Staten Island grand jury voted not to indict a policeman, even when there was a tape of Eric Garner being choked to death that was so compelling it convinced star athletes, among the most conservative of our icons, to wear “I can’t breathe" t-shirts. We know the system is truly broken.
And what could be more secret than the CIA? The answer used to be the National Security Agency, that is, until Edward Snowden came along. He should be offered a deal, lightly punished, and then given a testimonial dinner to thank him for stopping us before we tap again.
As for the CIA's torture fiasco, it wasn’t Senator Dianne Feinstein who did the critical leaking. It was the agency itself. Even covert operations don't stay covert these days. Yes, videotapes of the waterboarding sessions were destroyed but not contemporaneous memos, though some former CIA directors asserted in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that Feinstein cherry-picked files to prove her case. The program was invaluable, lawful, authorized, known to senators at the time, and saved lives, the former officials insisted. That crucial last point wasn't endorsed by the current CIA director, John Brennan, who said the cause and effect was “unknowable.”
If everyone from the CIA to Bill Cosby had known that everything would eventually come to light, would they have behaved better? Character, loosely defined, is what we do when no one is watching. Would interrogators engage in rectal feeding if they knew they’d be exposed for doing so? It’s unlikely fear of exposure would have stopped the two psychologists who were paid $81 million to run the CIA program. Those who outsourced torture to these mercenaries belong in another circle of hell.
Each new scandal of disclosure brings us back to a fundamental question: After all this, why do so many people bare their secrets in e-mail? Thanks to avenging hackers who may or may not be acting on behalf of North Korea, two of the biggest shots at Sony Pictures -- studio chief Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin -- will forever be known as unfunny racists who speculated that President Barack Obama's favorite movies would be about slavery. Sony should know that not even the cease and desist order to the press from super lawyer David Boies can put the toothpaste back in the tube. You write it, there's a risk others will see it. Every third-grader knows that.
This see-through era has a way of bringing out the truth, or at least exposing non-truths . We may never know what happened to the pseudonymous Jackie, who claimed to Rolling Stone magazine that she had been subjected to a brutal gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity house. But thanks to the Washington Post’s re-reporting of the story -- which followed up with easy-to-find friends and checking places and times --- we know that many aspects of her account don't add up. Yet the piece is still on Rolling Stone’s website, giving ammunition to sexual-assault skeptics who are always eager to shame victims and find evidence of a hoax.
Then there are people who casually reveal their secrets years later. To what end is often hard to fathom. Although the motive isn't so hard to guess in the case of Lena Dunham, of "Girls" fame, who got a $3.5 million advance for her memoir “Not That Kind of Girl.” She revealed therein that she was sexually assaulted at Oberlin College by the campus’s “resident conservative,” a fellow named Barry, with a mustache, purple cowboy boots and his own radio talk show. Ooops. It turned out there was a Barry at Oberlin who fit that description, though not the crime. Her publisher, Random House, agreed to pay his legal fees and future editions of the book will make clear that Barry is a pseudonym.
Random House apologized for any "confusion,” but Dunham is toughing it out, copping only to being an “unreliable narrator.” She makes excuses that don't cut it for a member of the Internet-native generation who knows full well that everything is now open to challenge by everyone.
“Speaking out was never about exposing the man who assaulted me. Rather it was about exposing my shame, letting it dry out in the sun,” Dunham wrote on BuzzFeed. “There is no right way to be a victim.”
Telling the truth is one of the better ways, though. Dunham Rolling Stoned herself and she hurt women as much as the magazine has damaged its own credibility. There are repercussions.
The Dunham and Jackie debacles harm everyone by giving the likes of Cosby some cover to dismiss the “innuendos” directed at him because gender politics allows skeptics to say that if one woman lies, they all lie. In Cosby's case, the number of liars now exceeds 20, the latest being Beverly Johnson, who came forward to share an assault from the mid-1980s.
Even so, the comedian's wife of 50 years, Camille Cosby, said Monday that her husband had been Rolling Stoned, a victim of sloppy reporting. The Rolling Stone story "was heart-breaking, but ultimately appears to be proved untrue," she wrote in a statement. "Many in the media were quick to link that story to stories about my husband -- until that story unwound."
We know Cosby had a phalanx of fixers whose job description likely included keeping secrets. Only one has broken ranks, a former NBC employee who guarded the star's dressing room door and has produced copies of money orders he sent to the unhappy women who crossed the threshold. Finally, Cosby is a pariah. His onetime fans now refuse to go to his performances and his contracts have been cancelled.
Whether you’re the grand juries in Ferguson or Staten Island, the intelligence community, an oversharer on Sony e-mail, an irresponsible reporter, a memoir writer earning her advance or a sociopathic comedian, remember that the truth will out. That’s all to the good.
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