One of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more fiction. That said, I’ve decided to read the fiction found in novels more and the fiction found in the news less. Here’s why: it used to be that a reader of news — whether peruser or connoisseur — could come to expect, at minimum, the following:
- Objective, timely, and methodically-researched copy
- Clean, articulate, error-free composition
- Rhetorical acumen
It seems these characteristics are no longer required of journalists, professional or otherwise. And despite the seemingly universal claim made by every media outlet to produce an un-spun version of the story du jour, it seems more and more that the matter is settled: there’s no longer such a thing as objective journalism.
While no single factor is worthy of receiving all the blame, here’s a list of note-worthy, blame-worthy contenders:
- The twenty-four hour news cycle
- The death of print
- The iPhone
- The slow, methodical decline of Western Civilization
- The proliferation of blogs, bloggers, and blogging
But the three most significant reasons why timely, objective, exceptional writing is now the exception rather than the rule in postmodern media are as follows:
- We abhor doing hard things, and exceptional writing is hard to do (c.f.: my shameless use of the list form above to transmit information without having to deal with those pesky elements constitutive of narrative composition (topic sentences, proper punctuation, transitions, subject-verb agreement, etc…and God forbid I be forced to state, develop, and support an actual argument)).
- We are also growing increasingly illiterate: unable to either produce exceptional writing or distinguish it from the garbage produced by hacks like me (c.f.: #1).
- We are no longer concerned with, interested in, or convinced that there exists such a thing as objective truth, per se.
But even if it turns out that I write real good and the writers at WAPO write real good and everyone writes real good (wink, wink, grammar), there remains the thorny issue of objectivity. Because everyone has an agenda. Everyone. And the agenda — whatever it may seek to accomplish, however extreme or slanted or mechanical or well-intentioned — has become the de facto trump card, silencing and sweeping aside the lesser-valued “reason,” “credible source,” “reliable data,” and “writing good” cards (wink, wink).
Select any issue currently making headlines: climate change, the elections, terrorism, Planned Parenthood, race relations, the refugee crisis, gun control, whatever. In order to appease an audience of increasingly partisan, easily “twitteracted” (think Twitter + distracted), broadly uninformed and — as such — terribly narrow-minded and inattentive readers, media outlets must not only generate stories with the speed and frequency of social media posts, they must also spin the story appropriately so as to retain their readership, even when that spinning flings the facts far afield. Additionally, the story must be grossly oversimplified, lest readers be burdened with the heavy intellectual lifting required to make sense of a world that lives in grey areas.
Besides, readers gotta’ get their hashtags in order. #ifitainttrendingiaintsending
Two interesting examples.
Sometime last month, a few of my friends and relatives used Facebook to wax philosophical but mostly political about climate change. I listened in as each contributor refuted the others’ claims by providing any number of seemingly credible links to what appeared to be both unquestionably viable yet completely contradictory data. One person pulled stats from wunderground.com’s: “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change;” another cited Scientific American‘s piece entitled: “Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense;” I did a bit of searching myself, and came upon Bloomberg Business’ flashy little Flash-based infographic: “What’s Really Warming the World?” And later, someone directed me to this short video, made by the co-founder of Greenpeace.
As soon as it began, the Facebook discussion was instantaneously politicized and, as such, instantaneously over. What I found interesting, however, is that each camp discredited not the other’s data, but rather, the source of the data. I mean, who has time to analyze raw data? And even if you did, who can trust anything printed in Scientific American, a for-profit venture of Nature Publishing Group’s (NPG) consumer-media division? What fool would take seriously anything connected to Bloomberg? And Greenpeace? Those hippies?
Thankfully, in his State of the Union address, President Obama addressed and summarily dismissed anyone who may still be interested in discussing the actual human impact on global climate change:
“Look, if anybody still wants to dispute the science around climate change, have at it. You will be pretty lonely, because you’ll be debating our military, most of America’s business leaders, the majority of the American people, almost the entire scientific community, and 200 nations around the world who agree it’s a problem and intend to solve it.”
But then again, if you don’t like the President’s position, you may simply reject it and replace it with that held by Ted Cruz.
Listen, I’ve seen the polar bears adrift on melting ice, but I haven’t been to the polar ice caps to take samples. I wasn’t aware that the military held climate change as a top priority, but assume the President was making reference to this DoD report on the security implications thereof. It’s reasonable to question the relative merits of business leaders’ opinions on the issue, but when the setting for collecting such input is the President’s home, one has to at least consider the possibility of influence and bias.
To be sure, COP21 was an unprecedented event in the global community, and it’s unquestionably certain that the activity of human beings affects the planet. Must we regulate such activity so as to reduce greenhouse gas and carbon emissions? Certainly. Invest in clean, renewable energy and assist other sovereigns to do the same? Of course. Even so, it just seems a bit hubristic to claim that human intervention will prevent the planet’s temperature from rising two degrees. But, I could be wrong.
I’ve read, and believe, that it’s been hotter than normal for the last twenty years, but that’s only 0.0000000044% of the earth’s grand old age. And if NASA’s data is inconsistent with NOAA’s, who am I to believe? Who’s telling the truth? FOX? CNN? Is there anyone researching and reporting on climate change who hasn’t as least some skin in the game?
* * *
Let’s look at one other example: gun control.
Soon after the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, the general population….wait, I should pause here.
(The fact that I’ve chosen to refer to the event in San Bernardino as a “terrorist attack” is — for many — a dead giveaway as to my political persuasion. The same could be said if instead, I’d referred to the event as a “mass shooting.” Or did you figure things out sooner, when I chose to refer to the stuff happening to the planet as “climate change” rather than “global warming”?
Should we try a few more? Let’s say I refer to those who oppose abortion as “pro-life” rather than “anti-choice.” What if I refer to ISIS as a group of “murderous thugs” rather than labeling them as “radical Islamic terrorists”? What if I told you I regularly frequented Drudge Report and The Blaze instead of getting my daily dish from The Huff Post, NPR, and Slate? What if I referred to traditionally held democratic political positions as “progressive” rather than “liberal”? What if I used the phrase “patriotic” instead of “hawkish” to describe Marco Rubio’s approach to foreign policy?
Assuming you’ve pegged me, you’ll either continue reading or not, depending on whether you believe we share the same political views. But isn’t that precisely the problem? Must I only use those terms reserved for my chosen political affiliation? Must you be forced to reject my musings simply because we don’t agree on political issues? Can’t I get my news from NPR and FOX? Am I foolish to weigh the commentarial import of both Bill O’Riley and Rachel Maddow? Wouldn’t doing so actually increase my chances of thinking and writing objectively?)
But I digress. After San Bernardino, the general population was reminded by NBC News (and many others) that there were more mass shootings in this country than days in 2015. I say “reminded,” because similar headlines began appearing with increased frequency after the shooting in Charleston.
FOX News took a different approach. The outlet published a rebuttal piece considering how people interpret the same event differently, depending upon which definition of the term “mass shooting” a journalist accepts and employs. Wikipedia (yes, I cite Wikipedia, which is sufficiently — though not entirely — reliable) defines “mass shooting” as an incident involving multiple victims of gun violence. The federal government defines it as an event involving guns in which three or more individuals are killed. Some definitions of the term require the death of at least one victim; others don’t.
The weakness of both of these definitions, however, lies in the inability of those who adopt them to make the essential distinctions constitutive of a reasoned and informative argument. For example, using either of the above definitions to document the frequency of such events will cause a shooting resulting in the deaths of three individuals to appear statistically identical to a shooting involving the deaths of ten times as many. At the same time, the raw numbers alone cannot distinguish between the unprompted killing of innocent members of Umpqua Community College and a gang-related shooting in Chicago that occurred just three days prior.
I’ll leave further number crunching to you, but we see the same vagaries arising in the interpretation of documents as those revealed by conflicting interpretations of numbers. A proponent of greater gun control? Against it? In either case, you may cite the Second Amendment as evidence to support your position, so long as you find someone who will interpret the Amendment as you do — whether President Obama, a select group of top constitutional lawyers, Pew Research data, or a guy from the New Yorker.
So, whether I’m in favor of or opposed to stricter gun control, I can make the word “mass shooting,” any arguably relevant data, and the Second Amendment work for me in the same way I make the events themselves work for me:
“See all those innocent people being killed by bad guys with guns? We need fewer guns for the bad guys! That’s what the Second Amendment protects!”
— OR —
“See all those innocent people being killed by bad guys with guns? We need more guns for the good guys! That’s what the Second Amendment protects!”
Both arguments play, so long as the reader shares the political position of the author. And if the reader doesn’t, the author’s words are immediately dismissed, regardless of the potential merit contained therein. That’s the great thing about the current politicized media monster: if someone disagrees with you and happens to cite credible data as evidence, you can win the argument by:
- Citing your own, more credible source
- Yelling real real loud
- Labeling your opponent a bigot or racist or misogynist or feminist or denier or cat-hater or cat-lover or Republican or Democrat or Independent or “not me.”
- Telling yourself you won it
But if we do decide to stop yelling real real loud and inventing words to explain our biased, subjective, and oft skewed perspective, what recourse do we have when the truth isn’t black and white, when events are messy and muddled and inconveniently more complicated than 140 characters can encapsulate?
If there remains no such thing resembling an impartial voice in modern journalism, can there be anything resembling a trustworthy one? And if there remains no such thing resembling an objective subjective perspective, to whom shall we go for truth? Yes, we must hesitate to automatically dismiss those who — acting with good will — believe their contributions to any number of current cultural conversations both beneficial and beneficent. But, we must also account for the reality of ignorance and prejudice and dad’s affection or lack thereof and the inevitable biases resulting therefrom. We must also recognize that even those with the best of intentions cannot succeed when words and data and narratives are not imbued with the truth.
But what is truth? Do words and ideas have objective meaning, or is everything necessarily subject to the author’s or reader’s interpretation? To cite the perennially relevant C.S. Lewis on words and definitions:
When a word ceases to be a term of description and becomes merely a term of praise or preference, it no longer tells you facts about the object: it only tells you about the speaker’s attitude toward that object.
How can we have a valuable or productive conversation about what this or that combination of words means (and the implications thereof) when we cannot agree on the meaning of the individual words themselves, especially when the very definition of the word “word” is up for grabs?
* * *
My students will tell you that I am fond of citing the works of Thomas Aquinas in class as frequently as possible. One of my favorite quotations of his reads: “One should accept the truth from whatever source it proceeds,” or, more colloquially: the truth is the truth no matter the source. However, in completing my bibliographic legwork for this post, I was unable to locate the precise source of this quotation in Thomas’ writings. Instead, (and ironically) I discovered that the original author of this maxim is the Jewish rabbi and philosopher, Moses Maimonides, an intellectual giant from whose wisdom Thomas draws frequently.
Yes, that’s right: Thomas Aquinas, arguably the single greatest Christian mind in history, used the writings of a non-Christian philosopher to support his own philosophical and theological work. And here’s another real shock: Thomas also drew from the writings of pagan philosophers like Plato and Aristotle and from Muslim philosophers like Avicenna and Averroes.
But wait; the plot thickens. Not infrequently, Thomas rebuts and refutes the work of other Christians, including Augustine and Anselm.
Why so shocking?
Because today, if a regular Joe like me — in an attempt to formulate a meta-narrative regarding the deep philosophical divisions surrounding contemporary politics and the media’s coverage thereof — had the audacity to draw from the true and credible insights of Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and progressives, Christians and non-Christians, FOX and NPR, it’s almost certain I’d be roundly mocked.
Or maybe not; because that’s what I’ve done. Are you still here?