First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Whom Can You Trust in the Media?
Back in the heyday of the Soviet Union, when Stalin was starving millions of kulacks to death and destroying Russian and Ukrainian agriculture, scores of politically correct Westerners were permitted to visit the U.S.S.R.
Most of them came back with glowing reports -- "I have seen the future and it works."
History tells us that these "observers" were spectacularly wrong. Yet they were among the most respected intellectuals of their day (and many are still respected, with this sordid little chapter carefully swept under the rug).
How did Stalin manage to fool all these smart people?
He didn't. His efforts at deception were clumsy and obvious. These "observers" knew perfectly well that they were being "handled" at best, flat-out lied to at worst.
Stalin didn't fool them. They didn't even fool themselves. Like Jane Fonda in Hanoi -- for the same pattern has been repeated over and over -- they didn't come to observe anything, they came to find out what story they were expected to tell in order to advance the cause.
In other words, they were already true believers -- fanatics in a religious cause that only fails to be recognized as a religion because its god is not God. They were making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the haj to Mecca, saying prayers at the Western Wall. They went believing that they would see a miracle, and they returned claiming to have seen it.
Unfortunately, a tremendous amount of our news coverage has the same truth value as those reports from Russia in the 1920s and 1930s (and from Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s). Against all evidence, the reporters tell us that they saw exactly what they expected -- no, what they longed -- to see.
That's why we keep seeing snide references to the weaknesses and failures and lies of the Bush administration. A simple comparison with the Clinton administration at the same point in the first term would be instructive. By this point, Clinton had already failed with his (and Hillary's) health plan; he had broken his campaign promises to every group except the pro-abortion lobby and the Chinese; his party had lost control of both houses of Congress in the midterm election for the first time in four decades; and scandal after scandal filled the news media. His only real accomplishment, balancing the federal budget, was forced on him by a Republican Congress and made possible by a crest in the economic cycle which owed nothing to his policies.
By contrast, Bush II actually gained seats in both houses of Congress in the midterm elections; Bush has kept all the promises that were within his power to keep (though his enemies either detest the promises or keep raising the bar so they're never quite fulfilled); he has fought a so-far successful war against terrorist-sponsoring nations with an incredibly low rate of casualties on both sides; his administration has been remarkably scandal-free, and the closest thing anyone could find to a lie was a statement that was based on legitimate intelligence sources. Bush, too, is benefitting from an economic upswing (though his enemies continue to report the economic news as negatively as possible).
Yet the relentless cry from the "elite culture" (i.e., the Left) is that Bush's presidency has been a disaster from start to finish. The war we are clearly winning is a "quagmire." The economy is "improving but there are no good jobs." The federal deficits are going to cripple us -- which is true, but the Left only cares about deficit spending when Republicans control the government.
We ordinary citizens are caught in a dilemma. We know that the news we get is being spun -- ludicrously so, sometimes. But it's hard not to believe a conclusion that all the media seem to cooperate in telling us. Could they all be lying?
Not really. They're simply true believers in the same religion, so they have already decided who the saints and devils are, and report the news accordingly.
The solution is not to listen to the true-believing right-wing media -- Rush Limbaugh is entertaining, but he isn't going to get you any closer to the truth than the New York Times editorial page. The truth is simply not well-guarded in the hands of true believers on either team -- not as long as their allegiance to the team is greater than their allegiance to the truth.
(And please don't tell me that the Right never lies. I've got friends on both teams who've been disgusted by the lies and manipulations that go on among the true believers -- all justified because their cause is "so important" and the other guys are "so dangerous.")
When the media can't be trusted, what can we do? Let me assure you, even if you had the time and money to visit all the news sites yourself, you wouldn't get much closer to the truth. It isn't being there that gives you an accurate understanding, it's having reliable data that you can interpret in ways that correspond with reality.
In other words, we have no hope of finding out accurate information without good reporting, but good reporting seems about as scarce as water-powered automobiles this year.
Most people just give up and stop caring. But you're still reading this column, so maybe you're one of those who does care. How can you see through the spin and the "miracles" and the coverups and the mudslinging to get some idea of what's really happening and why?
The first reality check is a thorough knowledge of history. Human behavior has not changed a whit in any important way for the past four thousand years. There are patterns of causality; certain kinds of things happen over and over, for similar reasons and with similar results. So when you see them happening again, but with an accompanying story about how wonderful and new they are, you're better able to look at them with skepticism.
In other words, the more history you know, the more likely you are to notice when someone's pulling the wool over your eyes.
Still, that's only a generalized skepticism. To know you're being lied to is not the same thing as knowing what the truth is.
So here's some advice about a few reliable sources of information:
1. Commentary Magazine. I put Commentary first because it's the best. Even though it's officially "conservative" and is Jewish to the core, the standards of accuracy are astonishingly high, and the writers are not afraid to debunk the myths of the Right as well as of the Left.
Perhaps it's because the editors and writers were generally not born conservative -- they were once liberals who refused to ignore the dissonance between the doctrines of the Left and the actual evidence. They had many conservative ideas thrust upon them until finally they realized that they were conservatives, quite against their will.
If, like me, you're not Jewish, there will be some articles in Commentary that are of only academic interest -- but, on average, no more so than in the average issue of Time or Newsweek.
And if you doubt my word about how important and accurate this magazine is, pick up an issue and read the letters to the editor. Time after time, you find letters from ambassadors or leaders of groups or political camps opposed to Commentary. Why do they bother? Because they know that to be exposed in Commentary is a terrible blow -- the magazine has such prestige that it simply cannot be ignored.
2. Atlantic Monthly. This is not a specifically political magazine, though politics and foreign affairs show up frequently. I include it in my list of reliable sources because the editors have very high standards and they're not afraid to print articles that stray from the party line -- to the point that Atlantic functions as one of the few genuinely neutral political forums around.
3. New Yorker is considerably farther to the Left than Commentary is to the Right -- but once you skip over the almost insanely hate-filled anti-Bush and anti-Republican rhetoric that invariably appears in the "Talk of the Town" section, you are left with a magazine with high editorial standards that is often the first to break important stories with deep and well-researched data. They also sometimes fall flat on their faces, but it's harder to be perfect every week than only once a month.
4. Wilson Quarterly is a "think-tank" sort of journal, going into great depth and background in order to put current issues into perspective. The writers seem genuinely middle-of-the-road to me, going where the evidence leads. And if you're seriously trying to sort out the truth from the spin, WQ gives you the tools.
5. American Enterprise is definitely from the Right -- but once you get past the gleeful Left-bashing, the American triumphalism, and the worshipful stance toward guns and the free market -- which is easily done -- they are a reliable source of information you won't get from the regular news media, and they are not afraid to include all the evidence or tar members of their own team when they slip up.
6. C-SPAN. The live coverage of Congress is illuminating -- it's amazing to watch the silliness that goes on in committee meetings sometimes -- but the real value is on weekends and off-hours, when you get genuinely neutral coverage of nonfiction books and important political events. Nobody on C-SPAN ever acts as if they thought they were more important than the news.
7. Fox News. This is a painful one, because of course the Leftist media establishment loves to trash Fox as being Rush Limbaugh 24/7. And Fox is hardly immune to the diseases of journalism. They waste just as much time on stupid local crime stories like the trial of what's-his-name for murdering his wife or the arrest of Michael Jackson, and just like CNN, they have all kinds of bogus experts who come on camera to pontificate on stories about which they have no more data than we in the audience do.
Then there are the "columnists" -- the primetime prima donnas who have become a real disappointment. Bill O'Reilly, for instance, began as a breath of fresh air -- his "no-spin zone" seemed to have real integrity, and when he said, "You get the last word" to a guest, he meant it -- the guest made a concluding statement, and O'Reilly went on to the next story.
Those days are over. O'Reilly's fame and wealth have led him to silliness, but for me the most damaging thing I can say is that there is no "no-spin zone" anymore. O'Reilly's opinion is the only one that's heard now. And when O'Reilly bullies and talks over his guests, and answers their "last word" with some angry little bon mot of his own, you can only conclude that O'Reilly now thinks he is the story. So I don't watch him anymore -- he's just Sam Donaldson or Dan Rather or Peter Jennings with worse manners. A star, not a newsman.
Hannity and Colmes is a slightly different story. The trouble is, you see, that these two are unequally yoked together. Hannity looks better on camera and has an easier, more natural air. Unfortunately, he's also just a little bit dimwitted -- or at least that's the conclusion you'd have to draw after watching him deal with guests. You see, Hannity gets one idea into his head about a particular story, and then pounds that idea to death. Meanwhile, his guests will raise interesting points that I'd really like to see him follow up -- but no, Hannity isn't listening; or, if he's listening, he doesn't understand a word of what they say.
Meanwhile, now that Colmes is no longer in the ludicrous position he was in in the late 90s, having to take seriously the liberal guests who claimed that Bill Clinton was innocent and Kenneth Starr was some evil persecutor, Colmes is able to reveal who he really is: A liberal who listens to his guests and who refuses to take extreme positions without any supporting evidence. While Hannity rants on and on about his hobbyhorse of the night, Colmes is the one whose comments actually shed some light and whose interviews actually follow up on interesting ideas.
Still, it's not for the famous primetime shows that I watch Fox. It's partly for their general news coverage. Their use of "we" in reporting on the actions of American armed forces was a relief -- after all, why shouldn't America have its war news reported by Americans who speak unashamedly of our military as ours, as us? When Americans are dying, I don't want some million-dollar-salaried newsman pretending to be neutral.
I also value the commentary shows -- the "Beltway Boys" round table, "Special Report with Brit Hume," and "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace." But then, I'm addicted to this kind of show when it's done well -- I still enjoy "The Capital Gang" on CNN, for instance.
Naturally, I make sure to read and watch what's being said in the less reliable media, just so I know what the party line of Left and Right is on any issue that matters.
And even the most reliable news source is not always going to be right, or share your values and reach the conclusions you would reach. The purpose of this is not to find some media source that you can trust so much that you can switch your brain off and let their ideas replace any thoughts of your own.
Quite the contrary. You need reliable sources of information precisely so you can do your own thinking and reach your own conclusions.
Then again, even the most ignorant lout has opinions. In fact, ignorant louts have the most opinions, and are most eager to share them with others.
I guess the goal here is to use reliable sources in order to test your opinions, and when your opinions don't fit with the undeniable evidence, you should be prepared to change your mind.
In fact, I'd say that a willingness to change one's mind as a result of learning -- and a willingness to learn even when it might lead to serious mind-changing -- is what separates the well-informed from the loutish. Nobody is right all the time -- but isn't it a worthy goal to at least try?
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
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