Lie to Me? You decide

The misery at the Tribune continues.  It stands accused of having created a frat house atmosphere.

David Carr of the New York Times reports an event that took place at the beginning of the regime of Randy Michaels, Tribune CEO. Shortly after his appointment, Michaels ran into several colleagues at the Intercontinental Hotel.

Carr gives us starkly different versions of what happened next.

After Mr. Michaels arrived, according to two people at the bar that night, he sat down and said, “watch this,” and offered the waitress $100 to show him her breasts. The group sat dumbfounded.

“Here was this guy, who was responsible for all these people, getting drunk in front of senior people and saying this to a waitress who many of us knew,” said one of the Tribune executives present, who declined to be identified because he had left the company and did not want to be quoted criticizing a former employer. “I have never seen anything like it.”

Mr. Michaels, who otherwise declined to be interviewed, said through a spokesman, “I never made the comment allegedly attributed to me in January 2008 to a waitress at the InterContinental Hotel, and anyone who said I did so is either lying or mistaken.”

A clear case of "He said, He said."  The accusation is detailed.  The rebuttal is precise and emphatic.

Now, if we were Cal Lightman, the character on Lie to Me, modeled on the psychologist Paul Ekman, we might well have an opinion about which of these parties speaks the truth.  But there is also an anthropological approach to the question.

I am not insisting on this interpretation.  I am suggesting it.  The reader may decide whether it is plausible as a way of assessing what may have happened that night at the Intercontinental…or not.

It is not a precise science, this sort of decoding, but here goes.   There is something about the way the accuser describes the occasion that carries a certain plausibility.  "Here was a guy…"  We can hear the astonishment.  A CEO offering to pay for nudity.   In front of peers in a public place.   With someone known to the peers.   Astonishment becomes dismay, dismay becomes horror.  This is not merely a description of the event.  It is a record of it. The accusation doesn’t merely assert evidence.  It contains evidence.

My argument: some accounts may be judged plausible because they carry traces of the event they report.  And I think this record does. I believe we can feel something of the event. I believe we can hear the speaker’s emotions in the moment.  I believe we can see the social event coming undone.   I believe the event left an impression on the accuser and this impression has been transferred to his accusation.  I believe the Intercontinental event left traces.  Not in the physical world, but in the emotional one, I believe.

Let us make the argument negatively.  If the accuser were lying, I think his account would be more descriptive, more informational.  It would not carry these emotional and social data.   Of course, gifted liars might be expected to reproduce emotional and social data in order to create plausibility.  But they would have to be very gifted liars indeed to capture the emotions of the moment and the shambles of the event. The thing is most people aren’t sentient enough to fake this kind of emotional and social data.  We just don’t understand our emotional and social lives that well.

Anyhow, you be the judge.  Which of these accounts of the event do you find more compelling?  Please let me know.  (Tom Guarriello is my advisor in matters psychological. I’m hoping he’ll let us know what he thinks.)

References

Carr, David. 2010. “At Sam Zell’s Tribune, Tales of a Bankrupt Culture.” The New York Times, October 5 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/06/business/media/06tribune.html?_r=3&ref=business (Accessed October 19, 2010).

2 thoughts on “Lie to Me? You decide”

  1. Good interpretation. For the sake of argument, could it be a case of deceitful transferal? What if the event really took place, but with another person?

  2. I belatedly weigh in on this excellent post having recovered the ability to type (relatively) painlessly following shoulder surgery.

    My opinion: the accusation smacks of truth. The ring of CEO arrogance is followed by the unmistakable disdain of the flawed leader by the led. The, “can you believe anyone would be this clueless…” wonder of it all has the distinctive piquancy of “truth is stranger than fiction” that distinguishes it from run of the mill BS.

    All of which is finished with a marvelous top note of always-satisfying Schadenfreude.

    Winner!

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