I’m old enough to describe how over the last fifty years the role of untruth has progressed in the media.
When I was 10 years old, 54 years ago, I started reading four different daily newspapers a day. And not those that just report sensational news flashes adorned with other non-news like gossip. No, mine had the serious stuff, with solid reporting and in-depth analyses. In the beginning it was hard, all these complicated and unknown words for a 10-year old. But quickly my vocabulary expended and I became most informed, especially on politics. (I didn’t particularly follow academic progress.)
I turned to news papers because I was fed-up with being left in the dark about the world around me. All books I read were fictional. At the time there was no youth literature that dealt with life and the real world. Even interpersonal things like powerlessness, depression and divorce did not exist in books for the young.
I wanted books about this world. I asked the local library to let me into the grown-up section. They had to consult for a long time. Then they were willing to let me go there but only with a librarian accompanying me. Later-on, I understood that they were afraid that I would take out erotic literature – I was 10, for Heaven’s sake – I didn’t even know what was sex. Such nitwits. But every book I gave a cursory reading to see if it would be interesting to me was filled with words that I did not know. This was no solution either.
Then grownups started talking about a war in the Congo and I knew nothing about it. This made me decide to go to news papers.
Now, Dutch political news is enriched by having a dozen or so political parties enlivening debates and governments made up from politicians from a hand-full of political parties at least. There were lots of details to read and I found it fascinating. Comparing left-wing and right-wing papers with different angles was also interesting. It gave me a clearer vision on what really was happening. I didn’t settle for news flashes on television – we did not have TV yet – or radio. I could read the whole story myself. I loved it.
And then it happened. I was all of 16 years old. A national demonstration was organized against cutbacks in education. My right-wing school had a dilemma: they would also suffer the cutback but they weren’t exactly the let’s climb the barricades types. Their compromise: if students wanted to join the demonstration they would not be punished for missing the school day. It was only half an hour by train, so off I went.
The turnout was humongous – three times the expected numbers. That had a negative impact. The speakers were inaudible because the speakers were way to small for the enormous crowd. Most of the students could not hear a thing. Only the first rows of non-adolescents had chairs to sit on, and they could hear the presentations. The students became bored out of their brains and started singing. The next day, every paper in the Netherlands reported that the students had been undisciplined. Not one journalist had taken the trouble to leave their comfy seats and talk to us. Forever, I was now cured from believing at face-value anything the press reports.
Apolitical people then often say: so why follow the news at all if it’s all inaccurate? Well, there are more-moderate options between the extremes of staying uninformed and snapping up whole anything published or broadcasted. While you read an article you can compare the text with prejudices or other nonsense that you know. To subtract bias from the general angle of that publication may help. Even the greatest bunch of baloney can still contain one pearl of information or insight.
There were certain issues that distorted reporting:
- The journalists didn’t know what they were talking about (science, medicine). That could lead to misunderstanding, or indiscriminately giving over of deliberate lies.
- Bias of the journalist. This could be unaware (these people are so exotic), from real hatred (these people should be stifled), or from their own opinion (poor people do not need much money). Often the journalist was fine but the editors before printing would “adjust” things to fit the outlook of the paper, its readers or the editor-in-chief. A tendentious or soothing headline or picture can undo information too, without changing a letter in a text.
Reading several newspapers a day often helped figuring out what was true.
Understand that this is so different from the main source of distortion nowadays. All the above still is true, but the democracy and seemingly anonymity of the Internet and modern media made for a big mixture of sense and nonsense without anyone sorting it out for us.
Elvis is alive and Clinton can die any second now (for months already). There is no punishment on spreading total fabrications, it seems. Blood libels, urban legends and UFO stories are older than the Internet, but have taken a greater flight through the egalitarian medium.
After a US President was able to stay in office while he was already senile (his wife doing the real job) and another one who was a real dumbo, we now have someone who became great in business by lying and manipulation. When required, he will easily say the opposite not only of truth and reality but also of his own opinion. If needed he’ll read it from a piece of paper (“the lives of black people matter”) – reminding me of how well I read English texts out-loud when I was 14.
And that is a new aspect of untrustworthy reporting. It’s not completely fresh though – it’s only worse now. A right-wing party campaigning never tried to placate the super-rich. They knew whom to vote for. They would try to appease the Middle Class and the totally ignorant. We will protect the weak in society because no one fights for you. Sure.
There are three ways that the media can operate:
1. Humbly reporting the news. A neutral serving hatch. This was extra important before the Internet, but less now everyone’s opinion can be disseminated through blogs.
Yet, this democratic reporting is wrong when we deal with liars and unscrupulous sales people. Then the interviewer should ask critical questions and investigate before publishing. It does the public no service to “just quote.” Most readers, listeners and viewers have no talent or time to research dubious claims. And who would even try to find the truth, if the opinion is presented respectably, assuming that they got it already.
2. Analyzing the news. Quality media keep reporting and analysis separate. Analysis always has the danger of bias creeping in. Reading conflicting opinions can just confuse (who’s lying?) or clarify (with getting the fuller picture, now I understand).
3. Creating news. This used to be considered the worst, the media becoming part of the news. I don’t meaning having a scoop. Rather, some media just create reality, come up with a story to influence the news or politics.
I know an Israeli daily that does that every day. When you confront its readers, they say: but they have so many good and interesting articles, on science, archeology, art and other stuff, especially in the Hebrew version; we take the political section with a couple of grains of salt. They seem not to feel bad about supporting and enabling them to mislead especially people outside op Israel with their English daily.
What also influences a quest for truth is (dis)honesty in politics. I used to think that integrity was the greatest good and politics should shape up and become honest. I changed my mind when I saw how shrewd liars like Arafat wrapped the loony left and the regular left round his little finger. It took shrewd right wingers to escape his deadly gaze. Unfortunately, national liars who can protect us against foreign liars can also trick the Israeli public – and they do.
Nevertheless, I dropped my idea that politicians should be honest. While swimming amidst a sea of sharks, being a pacifist does not help. When I made aliyah, everyone I met agreed that Bennie Begin and Dan Meridor were strictly honest. However, I did not always like their ideas and in any case, they have no real influence anyway.
For the same reason, I’m also against Rabbis involving themselves with politics. Generally, they are honest and decent to such a degree that they would just be the plaything of the average politicians. I know exceptions that confirm this idea. I know one Rabbi who is not too naive, but he would feel so hurt every time that someone would lie to him, that I’d fear for his health. And another one would be shrewd enough but end up in jail, which would be a terrible embarrassment for Judaism.
One of my Rabbis says: the news is 90% lies and 10% misunderstandings. So this is what we can all do to get sound information.
- Get the news – rotter.net/enews/news.php has a nice overview.
Some news outlets are notorious in lying, exaggerating, manipulation of the readers; some are as honest as can be, even if it would not serve their narrow or chauvinistic interests. Read the latter first or only.
- Check the reports against:
- The facts. (To the chagrin of academics, Wikipedia generally is very accurate and up-to-date.)
- Biases about oppressed groups.
- Your intuition.
In the end, the more you read, the better informed you are. Not only because you get more information but also because you get more insight in true and false. And you get older and that should make you less naive.