The Problem With Reality Is . . .


2017-02-27 – You don’t need to lie to distort the truth.

When the news media dwell on crime, you feel under siege. It doesn’t matter whether crime is rampant or rare, the constant reporting weighs heavily on you. Each individual story can be absolutely factual, but the over-all impression: FAKE.

When the media report on weird work-rule disputes between labor and management or union corruption or they take aim a high pension costs without a word about management fault, what do you naturally think about unions? We rarely hear about what they achieve for their members. The individual stories may be absolutely factual, but the over-all narrative: FAKE.

When the majority of news reports on climate change deal with the dispute about whether climate change is the result of human activity rather than the mechanisms for change or the options to mitigate the harmful effects, you start to think that climate-change denial is a THING rather than crackpot denial. Every crackpot may be absolutely real, but the over story: FAKE.

That’s the problem with “reality.” Reality is messy and diverse. Reality can provide evidence of peaceful communities as well as crime. Reality can provide evidence of labor peace as well as labor strife. Reality can provide evidence of climate-change denial as well as evidence of the opposite. Each piece of evidence may be absolutely true, but when reporting focuses on the exceptions . . .

But don’t exceptions prove the rule?

I don’t think so. Not when you hammer on the exceptions and ignore the rule.

When you are called to testify in court, you commit to tell the truth by taking an oath. Here is the oath. You’ve all heard it:

Do you swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?

Did you ever think about why this oath seems triply redundant? Couldn’t they stop after “Do you swear that you will tell the truth”?

Well, no. Media that cherry pick stories and only report on the sensational exceptions are telling the truth. But they are not telling the whole truth. It is completely possible for a witness at trial to sculpt a misimpression and still only tell true anecdotes. That’s why they swear to tell the whole truth. No partial truths. No half truths.

And nothing but the truth?

Another strategy for creating false impressions is to mix truth with falsehood. So we ask trial witnesses to swear that they won’t do this. We see this strategy employed every day in the world of politics. The Republican President is a master of this, as is his party. But the technique is widespread. Disinformation works. And even when it is debunked, it lives on. You’ve probably passed a false meme on to your Facebook friends. I have (even though I try to check things out before sharing).

So we ask true witnesses to take the three-part oath.

Unfortunately, we don’t ask the same of the news media . . . or politicians.

Now, before you think I am agreeing with our Republican president’s attack on the media, let me make my position clear. His attack only meets the first requirement of truth, as expressed in the witness’ oath. Much in the news media is false, either outright false (somewhat rare) or failing to provide the whole truth.

The president fails, however, on the two other elements of the oath. The whole truth is that much of what is false in the media has helped him rather than hurt him. Even the constant attacks on him as a person have helped, but the narratives discussed at the beginning of this blog and many others created the climate for his election.

Is he grateful? He won’t tell you he is.

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