Faux News and the Value of Truth

 Gold supplies have always been small enough to keep gold valuable. The same is true of Cuban cigars, Russian caviar, and hand-built Italian sports cars. And now we find that the truth – about both particulars and universals – has become so unusual, so scarce that many of us would give all we have for just a drop of it.

Consider how hard it is just to find out what important political events happened on any given day. We used to be able to turn on the local news station at 6:00 p.m. and a handsomish man with slick, dark hair would read the latest happenings to us off a sheet of paper.  Then another man would point a stick at a map and tell us what the weather would do the next day.  We believed the newsman and paid little attention to the weatherman because he was rarely right.  It was simple.

We know now that they weren’t telling us everything; we didn’t know that JFK was sleeping around or that LBJ was a jerk. True. But they didn’t specialize in making things up, in just digging up dirt. I suspect that the switch to 24-hour news has put a lot of pressure on stations to produce enough juicy stuff to fill the hours and attract viewers.  And I understand that reporters are expensive, so, even though the world is just chock-full of fascinating happenings, they can’t cover everything and tend to beat the life out of what few events they do investigate.

That’s all a given, but I think we need to make some rules about the news, shake the bugs out of the rug, so to speak. Mostly we need to define news and we’ll do that by declaring what it’s not.

News is not what a person has said in an ordinary conversation.  That’s gossip, not news.  If a powerful person gives a public speech, what he or she says needs reporting, but if MollySue McGillicutty says something in an offhand way at a dinner party, that is none of anyone’s business. When Hillary asked, during a Congressional hearing, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” that was news – we learned a lot about her from that one, very public sentence. When a tape was leaked of Trump making a crude remark in a private conversation 20 years ago that was gossip. And it was twisted and misconstrued into a “confession of sexual assault.” Which brings up another point:

News is not what we want it to be; it is what it is. When Mary Mapes and Dan Rather went after George W. Bush about his stint in the National Guard, they were trying to find something with which to attack him during his second term candidacy. They weren’t reporting anything pertinent to the nation’s wellbeing; they were trying to defame him and they wanted that so badly they were willing to accept as truthful a fabricated document. Journalism schools need to be making that clear – news is what is. Period.

Which brings up another point: news is not narrative, not in the fictional sense. You don’t get to make up a story just to fit a preconceived “narrative” – a code word that means, “what we wish were true.” You don’t get to twist your phrasing to make the story mean something it doesn’t. You don’t get to mess with the bare facts. Innuendo has no place in a news story.

On another note, a free press is not a means for changing a society. Anyone who got into the news business with the idea that he or she was going to change the world is out of line and suffering from a highly contagious form of arrogance. It is the business of the 4th estate to keep a watchful eye on government in order to maintain the status quo, to keep corruption at bay, to keep the public informed. What the public does with that raw information is up to the public, and given the sinful nature of human beings, any change we concoct is likely to be a mess, anyway.

News is also not history. History is 10 years ago, a hundred years ago, a millennium ago. News is yesterday. There has to be a statute of limitations on past mis-steps, on things we let slip, or mistakes people have made. We must make room for growth and improvement in a person’s character. At some point bygones need to be gone. Digging up old dirt is just that – old dirt; it is not relevant and it is not news.

What might happen in the future is also not news. We don’t know the future – no matter how much of an expert (an un-measurable term that we should always be concerned about) a person claims to be, anything he or she predicts is not news. The future is, generally speaking, unknowable; this is a good thing. The present has enough going on to keep us busy and we can’t do much about what befalls tomorrow anyway. We’ve learned to be suspicious of the weather man for just that reason, but let a newscaster tell us that in 15 years the polar ice caps will have melted and New York will be under water, and we forget all about the unpredictability of tomorrow’s high.

The problem with forecasting the news is multifaceted. In the first place, if you say often enough that in 10 years most teenagers will have contracted an STD, you might normalize that idea so much that you contribute to the nonchalance with which teenagers regard that specter. You end up causing the event by your prediction. Secondly, if people expect a certain thing to happen, they see it as a done deal and you end up causing intense confusion when it doesn’t. Just look at this election. We have the fascinating situation now where newsfolk are so shocked that their own prediction didn’t pan out that they’re barely coherent. They made the mistake of believing their own story.        

We don’t know, even in this Information Age, who will start the next war, which volcano will erupt when, where the next hurricane will form or tornado will touch down. We don’t know which team will win the Super Bowl, or whether or not Obama will pack up and go away. We don’t know and we need the humility to admit that. News organizations are so busy trying to outscoop the next guy that they leap on into next week, but that is not news; it’s guessing, educated or not.

And now, post election, we find the very people who so happily manufactured lie after lie after lie (and tried to sell them as news) so unhappy with the ineffectiveness of those lies that they’ve suddenly noticed a new phenomenon – fake news. What a revelation! Why, we conservatives had no idea! How typical – accusing the opposition of doing what you’ve been blatantly doing all along, and having the audacity to act shocked.

Yes, reader beware -- of course. But it has become harder and harder to tell which organizations are dependable and which aren’t now that the Gray Lady has shown she can’t be trusted. What are we to do? When actual events are adequately shocking and outlandish, it gets hard for even the most highly developed common sense to tell if a story is too weird to believe. News sites all look real, even when they’re satire (which now means “prank”), even when they’re on the opposite side from what they claim to be, even when they belong in the sideshow of a traveling circus.

The truth may be rare, but even so, it is not a luxury. It is an absolute necessity, even if it as costly as gold.