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Friday, January 29, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: Where Do You Get Your News?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Millennials are among the most flat-out gullible people I have ever encountered. For the most part, they wouldn’t know truth if it smacked them upside the head. Their manipulators and peers circulate fiction as fact on social media 24/7. They mistrust everyone except those they should.

Older folks still watch the six o’ clock news and have newspaper subscriptions. They grew up with media reputed to be fairly trustworthy in an age when the illusion could be reasonably sustained that there existed such a thing as journalistic ethics. Many of these are our fellow believers, people of goodwill for whom the habit of giving others the benefit of the doubt is well ingrained.

My own generation is characteristically cynical. Even so, it still possesses a significant subset of individuals too busy or self-occupied to think much about objective reality one way or another. They catch blips of information in passing.

While most people experience the occasional moment of cognitive dissonance with the media, for the most part they watch news on one of the Big Four or CNN and read their newspapers (or, more frequently, browse their online equivalents) under the impression that what is reported is more or less the way things actually are, give or take 10% for human error.

Tom: Can we really make that sort of assumption anymore, Immanuel Can?

Immanuel Can: No, we cannot, it seems.

Lies, Lies, Lies

As informal news sources have increased, and as videos of all sorts of events have proliferated, it’s become very clear that the mainline press has not been telling us a lot of important things, or else they have been telling us only those things that fit their political agenda. Increasingly, anyone can see we cannot really trust traditional journalism anymore — if we ever could (and that now looks suspect as well).

Agreed, Tom?

Tom: To some people this sounds like wingnut conspiracy theory stuff, but it’s been happening forever. I came across this video from a congressional inquiry in 1975 in which the CIA admits to planting false stories in the U.S. media many times over a period of years. So it’s more than the media “managing” the news — occasionally stories have been created from whole cloth. And that was before the media itself became blatantly invested in a number of political agendas. The news is not “news”, for the most part. It’s a carefully chosen mixture of truths and falsehood designed to move the behavior of citizens of allegedly democratic countries in preselected directions.

IC: Yes, it is. Some years ago, I taught media literacy courses. I read up on all that stuff, and found the examples myself, so I know you’re absolutely right … more than even you may know, and certainly far more than other people know. News has long been a matter of mass manipulation rather than a clear stream of truth. It’s an endeavour controlled by commercialism, by politics, and by the practical constraints of reporting, among other things. It’s not to be trusted unthinkingly. I wish it were otherwise, but it’s just not so.

Opinion vs. “Hard News”

Tom: I think people have always understood that when you read or listened to an opinion piece, you were going to get something agenda-driven and slanted, and in that context it’s fine. People have opinions and the right to express them. What is not universally understood is that there is no such thing as “hard news” objectively reported anymore. Not only are the “facts” we get on TV and in the papers carefully selected and occasionally phony, but the visuals that appear to support them are often quite manipulated. The pictures of bleeding victims presented to us to stir up sympathy are often not from the news event being discussed, or they may be artfully posed to produce a certain emotional reaction.

What makes this more difficult for the average truth-seeker is that interspersed with these propaganda exercises are plenty of stories that are almost totally accurate. So it leaves the viewer perpetually at sea, wondering what’s real and what isn’t.

Pulling Back the Curtain

How much of a role has the internet had in exposing this, IC?

IC: Quite a lot. It wasn’t that some people — particularly students of the media — couldn’t tell you it was biased before. But I think that now that people are beginning to see contrary reports done by independents, and especially that they are beginning to see the visual evidence for themselves in many cases, we’re all beginning to ask the question, “How long have we been asleep to this?”

Manipulation has existed for a long time: but it’s much more evident to everyone now.

Tom: Agreed. We’re seeing it every day now, whether in the Western media cover-up of the New Year’s Day sexual assaults by migrants in Germany, or in the search for the truth behind the story of a drowned child on a beach in Turkey. The media narrative we’re presented with is largely bogus.

Taken In: Uninformed Activism

So here comes the takeaway: This is a problem for every seeker of truth, secular or otherwise. But what specific consequences for Christians do you think arise out of this uncertainty about what is really happening around us?

IC: I think not many, provided we don’t frame our own assumptions on, or act on, the information coming from the conventional media. It’s past time we took a very skeptical look at our media: but most people just don’t have time for a personal investigation of the facts of every story. What we can do is remain cautious about what we’re told, and focus down on the moral decisions involved in our own personal lives, rather than being drawn into information wars abroad. What do you think, Tom?

Tom: I think if we can do that, great. But that’s not what’s happening, as I see it. I am always saddened to see Christians taking activist positions for various causes or ripping into public figures on social media websites when it is very evident they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. Too many of us uncritically absorb disinformation from the media. Sometimes we respond to it emotionally in the most embarrassing, naive ways.

IC: What do you mean, Tom?

Tom: Things like Intervarsity Christian Fellowship’s Urbana Conference 2015 promoting #BlackLivesMatter. The organizers and attendees equally bought into a narrative that is transparently false, but at the time nobody seemed bothered about becoming the pawns of political shakedown artists. Or seeing Christians on Facebook tear a strip off the governor of a U.S. state about its refugee resettlement policies. This stuff is none of our business. I can’t see why we would drag the Lord’s name into such things.

Abandoning the Single News Source

IC: Well, would you trust any sources more than others? Would you, say, trust conservative ones significantly more than liberal ones?

Tom: To a certain extent, but not completely. I’m not saying, for instance, that you have to love Fox News. They’re a racket of their own. A search engine is your friend (though these are being tailored to prioritize ideology too). Spend a few minutes looking some of these things up before you swallow the conventional wisdom hook, line and sinker. The most honest news reports are usually the ones that come out two to three weeks after the events originally occurred when the dust has settled, though most people don’t have the impulse control to wait that long to make up their minds about something. And the most truthful statements are found in the twenty-seventh paragraph of newspaper articles, not in the headlines.

I would say if it is your habit to frequent any single news source for most of your information, you’re in danger of being conned regularly.

How Important Is Information?

IC: Fair enough.  Now, how important do you think it is for Christians to stay abreast of the various events going on around the world — or those closer to home, for that matter — if those stories don’t personally impinge on our lives? I’m thinking of stories like the Syrian situation or North Korea, or like what the Kardashians are wearing, or how the latest street thug was murdered in the next county? Is being a good Christian aided in any way by our knowing all of that?

Tom: Well, I’m not suggesting that Christians ought to invest large chunks of our lives in investigating and thinking about issues that ultimately we have no control over. We have better things to do with our time, and a higher citizenship to consider. Nobody needs to know anything about the Kardashians, for instance. Ever.

But the fact is that most of us do invest some time every day parsing the news, whether it’s on a tablet on the subway, on the computer in the office or at six p.m. in front of the TV with the wife. I would suggest that rather than getting our information from a single source, like the BBC or CTV News or whatever, to bounce around instead. I read progressive nonsense like The Huffington Post from time to time, just to see what craziness is coming from the Left. But then I may read something from the Alt Right to balance it, or simply Google a story two weeks after it happens to see what other information has surfaced but has not been covered in the headlines.

Mostly, I think we need to develop the habit of reserving judgment on these things rather than rushing to social media to blurt out uninformed opinion.

Information-Action Ratio

IC: Daniel Boorstin has an interesting concept in this regard. He worries about the amount of information modern people take in, because of how little of it they can do anything about. He speaks of the “information-action ratio”. That is, if a person hears tons and tons of stuff that is just irrelevant information, but not information-for-him, then he learns passivity and indifference. Eventually, such a person hardly ever takes action based on information he learns, even when that information should make him take action.

Do you think there’s any danger of that in the Christian community generally?

Tom: Oh, definitely. But there’s an equal and opposite problem, which is being too emotionally involved in things that have nothing to do with you. I remember sitting in the home of a middle-aged Christian couple on one of the recent occasions when there was a U.S. public school shooting, out in the mid-west somewhere. The details of this massacre are pouring out bit by bit all day on CNN in the family room at high volume, the wife is pounding out her grief on social media and reduced to tears over the actions of a couple of crazy boys with guns thousands of miles away.

Emotional Fatigue

And I’m thinking what are we doing here? We are supposed to bear one another’s burdens, sure, but I don’t think the Lord ever intended us to be emotionally invested in everything that occurs everywhere. It’s impossible. We haven’t got the capacity. That’s a recipe for apathy on the one hand, as Boorstin says, or a nervous breakdown on the other.

IC: Well, yes. And I think that’s the other side of the Boorstin problem. She could do nothing about those kids thousands of miles away. Eventually, she would fatigue herself with useless pseudo-caring — elaborate expressions of grief and “solidarity”, endless hand-wringing and a lot of back-and-forth about “what if that happened to my kids”. But inevitably, she would come to see that she was ultimately impotent to help, or become wearied with her own emotional overwrought-ness, and become desensitized and indifferent.

You just can’t spend your whole life “caring” passionately about things you can’t fix. So you turn off.

I would say we have a lot of that. People hear about so many horrendous events through the news that they become indifferent to all of them. Look at the muted reaction to some of the latest revelations.

Giving Thought to Our Steps

Tom: Isn’t that the truth. Solomon left us some good advice in Proverbs: “The simple believes everything, but the prudent gives thought to his steps”. It seems to me we’re living in a decade when those words are well worth remembering.

IC: Yes … the alternative to listening to everyone else’s “news” is to pay attention to where your own feet are going. The Lord has given each of us only so much to do — that is, as much as we can reach, as much as we can achieve in twenty-four hours, and as much as our given resources allow. We need to focus our caring first and foremost on the ethical decisions right in front of our own noses, and then only afterward about the huge issues involving massive forces, unknown people or taking place in faraway lands. For most of them, we are not actually responsible at all.

When we are faithful in little things, we are also potentially faithful in much. When we forget the little things — the things God has actually told us each to do daily — we cannot ever expect to prove faithful in the bigger issues. The One who says how far our responsibilities go is the Lord.

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