We Can Handle The Truth
In the middle of the summer of 2017, the daily crisis of American internal conflict piles up like the overflowing boardwalk trashcans on Coney Island at the end of each day. Careless waste, with something rotten at the core, turning odious as the breeze picks it up and pushes it inland.
Some of us stand on the shore, looking at the horizon and the huge, insistent, consistent ocean, and ask ourselves and each other: how did we get here? How do we get out of this mess? How do we make sure this never happens again? All the while, we’re trying to channel our outrage at the constant slew of injustice from the current administration into meaningful action.
Others of us eye those on the shore with suspicion. They see foes who will recklessly tax and spend, who don’t share “American” values, who are elitists with a socialist agenda, who are fine with immigrants flooding into our country to take away jobs, spread crime, and deal drugs.
There seems to be no middle ground.
There are legitimate areas of dissent between people who voted for the current president (a minority), and people who didn’t (a majority). Yet fissures of dissent have grown into deep chasms since the 2016 Presidential election, and continue to grow, threatening to split our democracy apart — sooner than later.
What caused us, Americans, to become so opposed to the thoughtful consideration of each other’s opinions? To stop listening?
What caused us to become self-righteous defenders of “facts” that tell only the stories we want to hear, without determining if those “facts” are indeed true? To dismiss all other “facts” as “fake?” To default to labelling all opposing viewpoints “lies?”
What has led us to devalue the civic bipartisan engagement and community roots of democracy?
What has led us to willfully mistrust, misunderstand, and misrepresent each other to the point of hatred?
A simple reason is that the information we receive — from our neighbors, from our teachers, from our clergy, from the news sources we “trust” — is biased. Deliberately.
For generations — since the era of McCarthyism and the original international cold war — the dissemination of partisan political ideology through the news media has been gathering momentum. Fueled by radio, television, the expansion of cable, the abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine, the internet, the speed of technological advances, and a social media atmosphere where everyone can be a pundit, we are now a population living in our own bubbles of information. Our trusted sources of information tend to reaffirm and amplify the beliefs we already hold.
Is that what they should do, though?
I’ll admit being irritated if The New York Times editorial staff publishes soft-pedaled news stories, even as I acknowledge we live in a First Amendment world (for the time being, anyway). I grind my teeth as I read, yet again, a piece of reporting that strains so hard to reflect the opposing viewpoints of its subject matter that it’s ultimately toothless and confusing. Which is not to say that fine investigative journalism, incisive editorials, and Op Ed rallying cries aren’t published every day at the Times — they are.
And they — like many news organizations — provide readers the opportunity to comment immediately, and to submit dissenting viewpoints as Letters to the Editors.
When I make my somewhat monthly attempts to listen to and understand those whose viewpoints are in opposition to mine, I am driven to outrage, disgust, and dismay in less than five minutes. Forcing myself to watch Fox News seems more painful than constant migraines. I flip my Twitter feed, and am gobsmacked by what appears to be mindless, knee-jerk support of the current president, peppered with vicious racism, misogyny, and intolerance. And I suspect that people with opposing viewpoints feel similarly dismayed and affronted when they read my feed (assuming they’re not bots).
In a world where Sinclair and Fox are unabashedly promoting an extreme right wing agenda with deliberate propaganda — enabled by a Commander-In-Chief who insists that mainstream media is an “enemy of the people,” should I want my nominally “centrist” news sources to react to that environment by balancing it with an unabashedly left-wing agenda?
What I want is the truth.
I want news that adheres to the tenets of responsible journalism. I refuse to be spoon-fed any ideology.
Earlier this year, the ACLU declared that the “freedom of the press, protected by the First Amendment, is critical to a democracy in which the government is accountable to the people.” And in the 20th century, Winston Churchill defended the free press as “the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize.” (He said “men;” I’d have said people; I’m quoting it verbatim.)
If you value living in a democracy, then you owe it to yourself and to future generations to engage in an informed debate. Support a free press and responsible journalism. Think for yourselves. Ask questions. Reestablish the civic bipartisan engagement and community roots of democracy, before the dark roots of authoritarian kleptocracy grow any deeper.