… telling the truth is a revolutionary act. ~ George Orwell
I’m having a serious crisis in faith… with journalism as a medium for truth. The predictability of the press to deliberately distort everything the Holy Father says makes me that much more disinclined to trust their veracity in matters secular and even trivial. If I can count on media magnates across the board, from the grayed throne-room of the NYT to the lowliest errant reporter in the AP, to inevitably and even knowingly misrepresent the truth (which is just a fancy way of saying “to lie”) regarding the teaching and actions of the Universal Church, who unites some 1.2 billion souls worldwide, why should I trust them in a scoop on a newly elected Congressman or even a story about a local Boy Scout troop?
There is, most likely, more going on here than meets the eye, but rather than simply cry foul, I feel compelled to point out the obvious consequence of abuse of power in the information age: I can’t trust the news. Period. I am intensely skeptical of everything I read. I always want to ask, Prove it. Show me the data. Don’t just refer to some study; I want a link to the published journal so I can read it myself, and then read the credentials of the authors and see if they’re up to the same noxious manipulation of the public’s perceptions of reality as the cruds at CNN and Fox News.
This is not a new observation: Jean Baudrillard argues a fascinating case exploring (and deploring) media-filtered reality in his short, provocative book: The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. He wrote almost two decades ago: “We are all hostages of media intoxication, … our site is the screen on which we are virtually bombarded day by day.” He could have been writing about the internet. I wonder what he would say about “news” items “going viral”…
Such shenanigans in the Press place an unsustainable and even unbearable burden of verifying the truth on the viewing/reading public. I simply do not have the time or even the desire to verify the facts of every story that is reported. Yet there is, time and again, ample evidence demonstrating that I cannot trust the media to report the truth, especially when it comes to the stories that interest me the most. It’s not so simple as playing ‘opposite day’ with the media: surely there is a great lack of consistency in when half-truths and open-lies are fed to an intellectually passive public. But there is no litmus test (that I know of) to administer to a story, except to do the hard work of tracking down the primary sources and reading them for myself. Sure, there are some individuals out there whose make that leg-work a little easier through excerpting and linking (most recently, I think of Elizabeth Scalia’s news aggregations peppered with analysis of the media’s pope-condoms frenzy). But even with the help, reading that much takes a lot of time, a tremendous amount of time when you consider all that is going on in the world that we are, for better or worse, culturally expected to stay on top of.
In the face of widespread informational malfeasance, I honestly don’t know what to do. My wife, who is fond of pointing out that your information is only as good as your source, recently shared with me an activity from her Intro to Research course. In it, the professor invited the class to take the popularized versions of “scientific” studies from credible-looking magazines or journals, track down the actual study, and evaluate how well-founded the study actually is. A simple question is all it takes: is is rigorous, reliable research? The answer, all too often, is “no.” But it still makes for attractive headlines.
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I’m reminded of my favorite scene in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale (4.iv), in which Autolycus woos gullible villagers with his penny ballads for sale:
I hope so, sir; for I have about me many parcels of charge.
What hast here? ballads?
Pray now, buy some: I love a ballad in print o’
life, for then we are sure they are true.
Here’s one to a very doleful tune, how a usurer’s
wife was brought to bed of twenty money-bags at a
burthen and how she longed to eat adders’ heads and
Is it true, think you?
Very true, and but a month old.