Fixated on truth

Truth commission. Riddled with authority, formality, and finality, the term sounds as though it comes from a piece of Orwellian fiction.

But these commissions are real. Under many different names, they’ve sprung to action in post-conflict countries worldwide. Alongside tribunals that try those deemed blameworthy, truth commissions investigate, interview those involved in conflict, and finally produce a report revealing the “truth” about what happened.

Results vary. So does the public reaction to those results. But from Guatemala to South Africa to the Philippines, truth commissions all reveal one similar reality — a human fixation upon the idea of truth.

The fixation is evident elsewhere — in the news. Gathered in pursuit of truth, assessed in terms of truth and valued as an agent of truth, news media reinforces a public belief that absolute truth contains inherent value.

Of course, some news sources present information more reliably than others. But plurality, an essential quality of the media, allows for this variation in quality.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees for news media plurality, stating “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

So far, it’s worked out well.

Plurality safeguards against human error. While journalists strive to be unbiased, they sometimes err. However, one can rest assured that a story presented from a liberal perspective will also be presented from a conservative perspective, a central perspective, and many others.

This free and varied media keeps a diverse society informed and content. In his article “Articles of Faith, Michael Ignatieff points out that “nations are not like individuals: they do not have a single identity, conscience or responsibility.”

Therefore, one absolute declaration of truth cannot bring about reconciliation for a whole nation.

“The only coming awake that makes sense to speak of is one by one, individual by individual,” Ignatieff writes.

Not only do truth commissions lack plurality, but they also deal in more sensitive content than much U.S. media. Displeasing reports about prospective presidential candidates don’t evoke emotion like displeasing reports about who killed your brother.

Declarations of truth and justice indeed have the capacity to satisfy, but they also have the capacity to infuriate.

The sensitive and skillful presentation of one interpretation of truth may satisfy many. But without plurality, they cannot alone bring about reconciliation.

“The expectations for truth commissions are often much greater than what these bodies can in fact reasonably achieve,” writes Priscilla Hayner in “Unspeakable Truths: Confronting State Terror and Atrocity.”

Post-conflict countries must remember that individual wishes —differing individual wishes — constitute the fervent human desire for truth.

Contact Alex at

Get the best of State Press delivered straight to your inbox.