Tuesday, March 2, 2021

A Crisis of Facts


Americans are trapped in a funhouse of contested facts and evidence that leaves many people with little to trust or believe. More and more they consume only information and sources that reinforce their opinions and prejudices. And many journalists aren’t helping. The first law of the profession, Alex Cockburn once suggested, is “to confirm existing prejudice, rather than contradict it.”

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It’s a post-modern age, one characterized by fraud and scandal — questionable elections, corrupt leaders, fabricated accounting that devastates the savings of thousands, doped-up athletes, and plagiarized or phony news. Even scholars are caught cribbing portions of their books. But all this obviously didn’t start with Trump.

The emergence of online media platforms, “citizen journalism” and social media led to a seductive notion — that professional journalists are no longer essential. The idea is that everyone can be a reporter; and that a paradigm shift will promote a conversation among equals as more people create, edit and assemble their own news. The more options we have, goes the argument, and the less control traditional media exert over what is relevant or newsworthy, the better off we will be. 

But this assumes a few things —  for example, that professionalism no longer matters, or is actually part of the problem, and that the old standards are arbitrary and irrelevant. But good journalism isn’t so simple. For example, it involves recognizing the difference between facts, analysis and commentary. Journalists must develop skills like conducting fair but probing interviews, finding relevant and complete -– not merely convenient — background, examining various dimensions of an issue, and conveying what they learn clearly, efficiently and accurately. Without such skills and standards ensuring fairness and accuracy, the public is vulnerable to distortions, biased reports, and blatant falsehoods.

Only a small percent of blog writing can be called “reporting.” And their sources can often be traced back to newspapers and other major platforms. Who will do the actual reporting if they fade away? For all its benefits, the “blogosphere” has also accelerated social fragmentation. Most sites attract like-minded people, creating a self-segregated news and information environment that can serve the interests of extremists. It’s similar in some ways to the partisanship that characterized the press of the early 19th Century. Truth and facts have become debatable notions.

A related problem is that conflict drives the news cycle, with tabloid sources and obsessive bloggers often shaping narratives. The old saying — If it bleeds, it leads — is more true than ever. All this makes it far more difficult for people to reach agreement or even have a discussion, and easier for demagogues to ignore or distort reality. The result has been a loss of faith in almost everything, along with an escapist mentality rooted in the belief that no meaningful change is possible. Popular culture feeds on this attitude, encouraging excess and striking poses while confusing commitment with fanaticism.

Still, the situation isn’t all bad. Along with skepticism comes a re-awakened concern about the human condition and the planet’s health. The idea that “rational planning” provides all the answers is no longer convincing, gone with notions such as “bigger is better” and nature is merely a resource to be conquered and exploited.

In economics, the approach to production known as Fordism, named for the man who brought us the assembly line, has given way to a more flexible, eclectic system emphasizing innovation and a post-industrial compression of time and space. The view that corporations and the global economy are only parts of a whole planetary system is slowly gaining traction.

On YouTube: Introduction to a talk at the University of Vermont

Commenting on the implications of post-modernism, former presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy once argued that it favors “fuzzy logic” and subjective impressions over rational arguments and clear thinking. There are no absolutes, just degrees and disposable attitudes. “This predicament is not altogether reassuring,” he said, “as it may lead us to a state of entropy, i.e., of randomness, chaos and disorder, with little basis for optimism as to what may result.”

Exploiting and responding to these trends, a right-wing cultural counter-revolution has gained momentum around the world. Speaking on his TV network years ago, Pat Robertson made the goal clear: “to mobilize Christians, one precinct at a time, one community at a time, one state at a time, until once again we are the head and not the tail, and at the top rather than at the bottom of our political system.”

In a nation founded on the principle of church-state separation, such a fundamentalist vision sounded unlikely just two years ago. Yet there were warning signs like TV huckster Glenn Beck and political “celebrity” Sarah Palin. So we shouldn’t be surprised that opportunists seized the chance to reshape public discourse. Conservative evangelists had been working this terrain for generations. Not much has changed since Aimee Semple McPherson and Father Coughlin except the targets. For Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and their team it’s everything associated with progressivism and social justice.

Backed by Fox and billionaires like the Mercer family and Koch brothers, right-wing voices have mass marketed an extreme world view and immersed millions of people in a false reality. Specious arguments have been presented as history, biblical truth or scientific fact. Too often mainstream media have unwittingly helped to legitimize their misinformation.

Prior to Trump’s rise, the far-right had already created a distorted picture of contemporary reality that many people — insecure, alienated and hungry for any guidance — desperately embraced. As former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed explained, the short-term objective was to force candidates to endorse the right’s agenda. But the ultimate step was always to turn that agenda into national policy.

From time to time, Hannity, Beck and others also point to a secret conspiracy, supposedly bent on subjugating the nation to a mutated socialism or fascism. The idea that Barack Obama is a Muslim socialist fit well within this overarching narrative. We hear its echoes today in accusations about “deep state” manipulation. This also harks back to the sermons of Aimee McPherson and Father Coughlin.

Bombarded with disinformation, people often turn to hucksters and demagogues who offer simplistic answers and the faint hope of a moral revival. Erich Fromm says that Hitler's authoritarian personality, which made him so brutal, was also part of his appeal to an insecure middle class. Their "fear of freedom" became a deadly threat to democracy. Sadomasochism was also a factor, he believed, the demand for deference to those “above,” and contempt for those “below.” A frightened person “seeks for somebody or something to tie his self to," Fromm wrote, "he cannot bear to be his own individual self any longer, and he tries frantically to get rid of it and to feel security again."

Along the same lines, John Dewey argued that “the serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states. It is the existence within our own personal attitudes and within our own institutions of conditions which have given a victory to external authority, discipline, uniformity and dependence... The battlefield is also accordingly here -- within ourselves and our institutions."

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