CONNECTIONS: Truth or consequences

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By Tuesday, Dec 27 Viewpoints  5 Comments
'Diogenes searching for an honest man,' attributed to J. H. W. Tischbein

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

Out of genuine uncertainty and sincere curiosity, I asked a pious person, “What is evil?”

He responded, “The perversion of good.”

“Only that and not any single act?”

“Only that,” he said.

1800 portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale.

1800 portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale.

Freedom of speech and journalistic objectivity are good. For Thomas Jefferson and our founders, they were the twin pillars of democracy. They are both complex concepts: difficult to conceptualize and hard fought for. Today, we are learning they are easy to pervert.

Journalistic objectivity is reporting what is going on without fear or favor; reporting the facts with fairness, disinterestedness and nonpartisanship; telling the truth whether it furthers your interests and goals or it does not. In journalism done well, opinion, gaps in knowledge and speculation are clearly identified and separated from hard fact; original sources are credited – never plagiarized – and fake news, no matter how tantalizing, is not reported.

The result is an educated electorate who are enabled to make informed decisions, act on the facts and correctly discern what course is in their best self interest.

Disinterestedness is central to journalistic objectivity. Lack of it is the key to perverting what is good. Fake news tells people, in a creditable way, falsehoods to promote the goals and desires of those advancing the lies. They do not wish to inform, they wish to sway. They are pitchmen, not journalists. They are not disinterested; they are invested in a specific outcome. They know the end they wish to achieve and they will say anything to convince you to give it to them. False advertising permeates our culture. Falsifying data to peddle a widget is commonplace; it enriches the manufacturer to the detriment of the purchaser. A tawdry pitch becomes evil when it is dressed up as news and peddled as fact.

Those who read and believe fake news are harmed. They do not have facts on which they can base a decision; instead, they are fooled or influenced emotionally into “buying” something that could harm them merely to benefit another. False advertising can encourage the buyer to pay dearly for a second-rate widget. The cost of false news is too great to calculate.

Freedom of speech complicates the issue, as does the Internet. Don’t we all have the right to say what we think? Isn’t the Internet the most democratic of inventions – unfiltered commentary available to billions, not just millions? If, on cable news, facts are presented about an issue, to be fair and balanced, must you present countervailing arguments even if they are not supported by facts?

Have we developed systems that protect lies? Have we confused unfiltered with accurate? Has truth become the victim of policy? If truth is holy, then who is protecting it and how?

Orson Welles in 1937. Photo: Carl Van Vechten

Orson Welles in 1937. Photo: Carl Van Vechten

What are the facts about fake news? It is a fact that there is now a cottage industry in fake news. How do we know? Those who manufacture fake news admit it and explain the probable advantages to their cause. It is a fact that two studies, one by BuzzFeed and one by Stanford University, both came to the same statistically significant conclusions: 75 percent of voters believed at least one fake news story and that story influenced their votes. It was impossible for the majority of adults and children to distinguish a fake news story from the real thing.

Is there an example of the impact of fake news in American history? There are many more than one, but possibly the best known occurred in 1938. On Sunday, Oct. 30, 1938, on the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network, Orson Welles directed and narrated a Halloween program based on H. G. Wells’ novel “The War of the Worlds.” In it, Martians invade Earth and attack.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt our program of dance music to bring you a special bulletin from the Intercontinental Radio News.”

The supposed musical program was interrupted two more times as the news became increasingly dire. Finally, an alien invasion was announced.

It was done in the form of a news program and was so realistic that everyone believed it. There was widespread unrest, crowds formed in the street and police were needed to restore order. The next day, the headline read: “Realistic radio program causes nationwide panic.”

It was fake news but the impact was real, violent, widespread and – mercifully – short lived.

There is a Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” Well, no one on either side of the national divide will call this a boring time so, by that measure, we are cursed.

As a talisman, I offer you the Lord’s Prayer: deliver us from evil.

May you always know truth from lies, good from evil, the disinterested from the selfish. Happy New Year.

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5 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Nick VanSant says:

    Thank you, Carole, for the cogent reflection on an important issue. We’ve come down this rabbit hole quite a ways in the past decade. Money is speech, corporations are people, opinion is fact. It is the cause of our blindness and may eventually be our way back to sanity. Keep up your good work.

  2. Steve Farina says:

    Good morning Carole. I spent about a half hour typing what I believe to be a well thought comment via my phone early this morning. Unfortunately, with the accidental brush of my finger I wiped it out.
    I hope to have time later today to revisit my thoughts.
    Also, you may be interested in my last comment on The Edge article:

  3. Joyce Scheffey says:

    As Carole, along with Ben Franklin, points out, we need an informed, active, and concerned citizenship if we are to maintain our Republic. For this we need real newspapers and a populace that reads them. Our public schools, while they last, don’t teach Civics or Humanities. During his campaign and to the present, Trump does not mention Climate Change or Human Rights. Where is hope?

  4. Michael Forbes Wilcox says:

    Nicely done, as always.

    Ironically, there is a piece of fake news embedded in the article.

  5. Anthony Ehrlich says:

    Carole Owens article on fake news, “Truth or Consequences is well written, well thought out, and well illustrated. And it has a profound lead-in, “If truth is holy, then who is protecting it and how?” Congratulations on this thought-provoking piece.

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