Real News, Fake News, and the Wisdom to Discern the Difference
The idea that there’s nothing to be gained by listening to people with whom you disagree is narrow-minded at the least, and potentially dangerous at worst. To reflexively disregard everything from a source simply because that source has burned you before exacerbates the error.
If the town liar rushed to your door breathlessly exclaiming that your house was on fire, would you reject his news because he has a reputation for lying? You’d probably at least check out his story.
Courts allow prosecution and defense to present their case, and don’t hand over to the jury the responsibility to make a decision until they’ve heard both sides. How often do we listen only to the prosecution? Or defense?
How much do we automatically reject because of the source? What fires are we missing because of our prideful insistence that we have nothing to learn from some sources?
Politics today is marked by increasingly radical polemics, featuring factions that utterly discount what their political opponents say. At the least, discernment – the intellectual ability to sift what’s worthy and valuable from trivia and tripe – is in short supply.
In one sense, this is understandable. A recent discussion with someone with whom yours truly probably shares 95 percent commonality on political issues chastised me for posting an article that was published by a website with a reputation for advancing fiction as fact. My otherwise kindred spirit condemned the article, even though he admitted he had not read it (“of course not,” were his words), because the website had duped him once before. Besides, he said, that article was intended only to get web traffic (“clicks”).
Let’s dispense with that last point first. Every hyperlink on the web is intended to get traffic. For the commercially oriented sites, it’s how they pay the bills and take home a profit. Just like newspapers. For the non-commercial ones, it’s how they spread their version of gospel. Just like newspapers.
To disqualify a website as merely “click bait,” misses the point. Such criticisms, by the way, often are published on websites that also seek traffic. If that’s a disqualifier, every website should be disqualified, which is absurd on its face.
It also doesn’t take an advanced degree in logic to understand that a web site that has published “fake news,” to use the current en vogue terminology, should be viewed cautiously. But it’s illogical to say it should be banned from your eye. It’s illogical for you to automatically reject anything it publishes.
The popular knee-jerk reaction is to attack such purveyors of information by calling them names. Should it be slandered and libeled? Ad hominem attacks are so much easier than dealing with facts.
But if that’s your measure, prepare to disqualify every news and commentary outlet on the web, and in print. And for that matter, every word ever uttered.
Speaking as one with more than four decades in the news business having written for some of the nation’s leading newspapers (and a couple of the smallest as well), I can say without hesitation, there’s not a publication to my knowledge that hasn’t gotten something serious seriously wrong. And at times, on purpose.
If an instance of disputable “news” automatically disqualifies a publication from consideration, we would be left with no publications.
Even the New York Times, the utterly slanted sacred scripture of the left-wing, occasionally publishes something true, and even gets somethings right. To completely disregard what the New York Times has to say arguably reduces your storehouse of knowledge. And it’s knowledge that feeds wisdom, not vice versa.
That raises the real cost of jettisoning websites from your universe of acceptable Internet sources: you don’t know what you’re missing. But missing it, you are.
Moreover, how do you know your adversaries’ true positions, if you rely only on friendly cohorts’ interpretation? News reporters (before they became hyper-politicized) once understood the value of getting information straight from the horse’s mouth, as the old saw goes. At worst, then you have only the adversary’s spin to unwind. But if you get the adversary’s version only from a source aligned with you, you will need to unspin first your buddy’s version, then unspin the adversary’s version.
As I advised journalism students I taught in college, get the versions of all sides in a dispute, particularly those opposite your own view. Measure what each side says about the other side. You might be surprised to find that many times the source you’re inclined to believe misrepresents its opponents more than its opponents misrepresent them.
But you won’t know, if you refuse to consider one of the sides for whatever reason.
We (should) read and listen to not just those with whom we agree, but also those with whom we disagree. Even those we know to be wrong. Even those with checked reputations. How else can we sift the wheat from the chaff?
I confess having learned at least as much about the evils of socialism, communism, atheism and secularism by reading the proponents of those “isms” than I learned from friendly sources. It’s surprising what you can learn by paying attention to the opposition. At the least, you learn their tactics. At best, you can put their unadulterated precepts to the test.
But to reflexively reject something because its source is out of alignment with your own preconceived notions is to reduce your intellectual processes to questionable efficacy and to be consigned to preaching to the choir.
This is the reason as a nation we keep negotiation channels open with hostile regimes. But you might say, “We officially break off diplomatic relations with countries when we find them beyond the pale.” Yes. Officially.
But no nation stops talking to another nation without great risk. Unofficial channels, even secret communications, flow between dire enemies, who have suspended official recognition of each other.
JFK, in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, continued to talk with – and listen to – the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev behind the scenes. There also were backchannel dialogs between the same president and Fidel Castro, even simultaneous with covert U.S. attempts to assassinate the Cuban. Publicly, Kennedy never gave Khrushchev or Castro any credit. But he kept talking to them, and just as importantly, listening to them.
In short, there is potentially much to gain from listening to our enemies. And even to those who obviously are wrong. It’s hubris that tells us we have nothing to gain by paying attention to those with whom we disagree, and even those whom we suspect are out-right liars and connivers (like the New York Times).
Discernment, of course, is required. Not everyone these days is willing to do the hard work (thinking) required. For others, sloth carries the day. It’s easier to reflexively disregard something because of its source and call them names.
But the Bible calls us to “reason together.” That requires thinking and discernment. It also requires becoming familiar with material you may feel inclined to reject.
If you have sound reasoning skills, there’s little risk in exposing yourself to something that requires you to think through the material. You can always reject it later.
But by exercising discernment first, if you do reject the material later it will be because you found it wanting. Not because you were embarrassed by swallowing a fraudulent story from the same source once before.
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