Week 31– Democracy: Truth
Truth is the fifth of the five pillars that undergird American democracy. We can’t sustain the other four (individual liberty, equal vote, equal justice and equal opportunity) without it. Its importance to democracy is profound in no small part because it checks the ambitions of the powerful. Truth informs: it settles elections; it holds all to account; it can disrupt the master narratives of elites; it challenges the biases we all keep in our heads; it opens our eyes and widens our circles of care. America needs leaders who will safeguard the truth.
Perhaps you will feel called to the public trust, good leader. If so, we expect nothing other than the truth from you. We need leaders of goodness throughout our government who act from a strong ethical core. But the reality is that God gave humans free will. Too often in real life, leaders fall prey to the calculus that a lie yields more power than the truth. Perhaps the truth would disrupt a governing party’s narrative, or a political allegiance, or one’s own political standing. Thus comes the lie.
Many in power believe that to control the master narrative is to perpetuate power. This is why dictatorship holds such hidden appeal to the corrupted leader. Dictators possess the means to punish truth and control what citizens hear. And it works, at least in the short term. We see this now, in Putin’s Russia. It is on the rise as well in our own United States, as truth-bearers are attacked and punished by keepers of the Big Lie. We must be clear: for leaders of the lie, democracy is expendable. Remember their slogan: “we’re a republic, not a democracy”. Awaken to the threat, good leader; make truth your shield.
Adolf Hitler wrote the dictator’s playbook in his book, Mein Kampf. Here’s an excerpt:
“The function of propaganda is… not to make an objective study of the truth.. its task is to serve our own right, always and unflinchingly… The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small… In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan. As soon as you sacrifice this slogan and try to be many-sided, the effect will piddle away…” — Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf
Psychological research studies show that once a group comes to deeply believe in an untruth, almost no amount of evidence can overturn that conviction. That is why, if not checked, lying is such a corrosive pattern. In a democracy, a free press provides the means to counter attempts by elites to control the narrative with lies. Here are excerpts from the Journalist’s Creed, written in 1914 and still taught to this day:
- I believe that… accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism
- I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible
- I believe that… a single standard of helpful truth… should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service
- I believe that… journalism… is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless; self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid; is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world
Robert McCormick, founder of the Chicago Tribune, once said, “The newspaper is an institution developed by modern civilization to present the news of the day… and to furnish that check on government which no constitution has ever been able to provide.” But in the past twenty years since the rise of the internet, the business model of traditional print and broadcast media has broken down. There is no viable return to that lost world of powerhouse newspapers in every metro area and above-reproach news anchors from three evening news channels prioritizing and broadcasting the day’s truth. It’s a new world. Journalism must adapt, good leader, so that the truth may continue to shine.
How can truth emerge in a world awash in social media and online news? To be clear, social media can be (and often is) a force for good. Everyone has a smartphone, so everything can be documented. Video clips of the murder of George Floyd, the killings in Bucha, politicians saying impolitic things– these are the raw materials of news in today’s world. We are always on, and the world is watching.
Bellingcat is an example of a new journalistic entity using the data from social media and other digital sources to expose corruption and political violence. Bellingcat did just this to track down, confirm and name every member of the assassination team sent to poison Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader who ran against Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency. The Bellingcat team proved the trail led right back to Putin. Using similar methods, it also unmasked the Russian and separatist perpetrators of the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014. Digitally-sophisticated journalistic teams such as Bellingcat are a force for good.
But on the leading media platforms, it’s also true that hate rages and misinformation is rampant. It’s on each platform to make up its own rules for policing misinformation and moderating debate. The problem is with incentives. Since ad revenue is highest when rhetoric is sharp and debate runs hot, the public’s need for truth and the platform’s need for profit don’t align. As such, manufactured conflicts and conspiracy theories– such as QAnon, the stolen 2020 election narrative, or the “vast right wing conspiracy” narrative — often overwhelm journalist-validated news. Some rising media outlets don’t even pretend to seek objective truth. Advancement of their own tribal narratives is their sole mission. Stoking conflict, they’ve learned, is the better path to profit or power.
For the average citizen, this daily flash flood of information and misinformation overwhelms. Each media source gushes its daily stream; collectively they assault us with rumor, fiction, silliness, debauchery, fact, real news, half-baked analysis and opinion. Confronted by this daily slag pile of noise, how can the average citizen sift out rare diamonds of truth?
Many of us do it by narrowing our focus areas down to those most familiar. But this creates its own problem. When we tune in only to the sources most custom-fit to our own pre-shaped narratives, we lose sight of the bigger picture and lose touch with competing narratives. This makes it easier for us to to amplify grievances; to name and blame enemies. Our hand-picked “news”, information and opinion pay homage just to our existing biases. It may feel safer and more self-gratifying, but to live solely inside these echo chambers is not a good thing. If we are to grow as individuals and as a nation, we all must suffer the discomforts of a wider truth.
Democracy needs journalism, much as a boat needs a keel. Journalism no longer controls what the world sees (as it did in the pre-Internet era)– but nonetheless it still plays a vital role in advancing truth. We need journalists to verify news accuracy, prioritize what matters most, dig deeper when needed, and provide context– always independently, always with rigorous accuracy, without fear or favor.
Is this your call, rising leader? If so, may God guide you. If you are a Christian, you have a useful roadmap in Jesus’ truth path. Jesus brings us the truth we must know, wrapped in love. He insists upon justice, but mixes it with mercy. His goal is not to condemn, but rather to reform, renew and save. As you work to bring truth into the heart of American democracy, good leader, you would do well to do the same. In the end, truth births awareness, accountability, repentance, forgiveness, reform and renewal. Truth is of God.
“Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place” — Ephesians 6:14
P.S.: To preserve the public trust and hold the powerful to account, we need capable, ethical journalists. This poem is about that.
IN DEFENSE OF JOURNALISTS
We’ve lost them by the thousands o’er the years
As broadcast news and papers shrink and die
Replaced by platforms amplifying fears
With strident voices spewing battle cries
Each day sets flight to fresh but unchecked “news”
Which stains the public trust as if by blight
Repeated, becomes treated as if true
A murder of crows blocking out the light
Against this swarm, far, far too few persist
In honoring their sacred public pact
Praise God the independent journalist
Who investigates then verifies the facts
Brave journalist: beat back the threats that lurk!
Democracy depends upon your work
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