The Briefing 11-21-16

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Who's checking the fact checkers? Fake news and the destabilization of the media

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Confrontation between 'Hamilton' cast and Pence illustrates our deep cultural chasm in America

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Why do some new buildings not have a 13th floor? Modernity's lingering superstitions

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Transcript

The Briefing

November 21, 2016

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Monday, November 21, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Who's checking the fact checkers? Fake news and the destabilization of the media

Two really interesting developments over the weekend, both in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, one having to do with the Broadway musical the other with the emergence of what’s being called fake news. First, dealing with the fake news issue, the New York Times, yesterday, ran an editorial that was entitled “The digital virus called fake news.” The editors of the New York Times,

“This year, the adage that ‘falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it’ doesn’t begin to describe the problem. That idea assumes that the truth eventually catches up. There’s not much evidence of this happening for the millions of people taken in by the fake news stories — like Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump or Mr. Trump pulling ahead of Hillary Clinton in the popular vote — that have spread on social media sites.”

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Now to state the obvious, there are fake news stories out there. As a matter of fact, there are fake news outlets; there are satirical news outlets, and there are those that clearly have the intention to mislead. And it’s not just a problem on the right, it’s also a problem on the left. But one of the interesting things that we are now noticing is what can only be called the destabilizing of the media environment. That on the one hand is an inevitable result of the social media revolution. Once you make everyone a publisher, then everyone will act like one, and eventually you will have very irresponsible voices. The point being made by the editors of the New York Times—and they made this point without much subtlety—is that the actual result of the 2016 presidential elections might well have been impacted by the political dimension of these fake news stories by the fact that some of them, coming as late as they did in the news cycles, came without the possibility of reputation and might actually have misled certain voters into either voting one way or not voting at all.

But when we come to look at the story more closely, it becomes apparent that some of the people who have been leading, that is those cheerleading, for the destabilizing of the media environment are those who are now saying that they alone should have the right to decide what is real and what is fake when it comes to news stories that might be published on the Internet on one platform or another. The editors of the Times wrote,

“Most of the fake news stories are produced by scammers looking to make a quick buck. The vast majority of them take far-right positions. But a big part of the responsibility for this scourge rests with internet companies like Facebook and Google, which have made it possible for fake news to be shared nearly instantly with millions of users and have been slow to block it from their sites.”

Now to look at this from another perspective, there is absolutely no way that any of these Internet giants can do anything to stop the emergence and even the influence of so-called fake news. That’s for a very simple reason. If there is such a thing as social media, then it will be determined socially. It will not be determined, eventually, corporately. Even if Facebook and Google were to change their policies into a far more restrictive format, perhaps even openly endorsing and allowing only stories acceptable to the left, then alternative social media environments would then appear. And there is no way to put this genie back in the bottle. Later in the editorial, the paper writes,

“But according to a BuzzFeed News analysis, during the last three months of the presidential campaign, the 20 top fake news stories on Facebook generated more engagement — shares, likes and comments — than the 20 top stories from real news websites.”

But as just about any fair-minded person might understand looking at that so-called study by BuzzFeed, that might have everything or on the other hand absolutely nothing to do with reality. And that’s because if you’re looking simply at Internet traffic, there is no way to have an adequate comparison. You can’t have the 20 top authentic news stories versus the 20 top fake news stories. Those 20 supposedly authentic news stories could’ve been run on any number of different platforms, and they might have appeared in different formats, in different times, in different days, in different places. When it comes to the fake news stories, they could’ve been rather carefully chosen.

But here the Christian worldview reminds us that we do care about truth. As a matter fact, we care about truth not only as a temporal but an eternal issue. And Christians come to understand that it is absolutely necessary for us to do our very best to separate what is true from what is false, what is the truth from what is a lie. No one is well served by people believing that fake news stories as they are labeled here are actually real. But the other thing we have to understand is that there is enormous worldview power, there is enormous cultural power, in being the authority that gets to decide what is fake and what is real

One other interesting aspect of this editorial is that this paper ended up having to make effectively an apology to its own readers in the aftermath of the election for missing what became the obvious by Election Day, and that is that Donald Trump really was a credible challenger to Hillary Clinton. If you’d been reading the New York Times, and for that matter other major newspapers in America, you would’ve thought that it was nearly statistically impossible that Donald Trump might be elected President of the United States. Another dimension of the story is the fact that the New York Times repeatedly as we have documented here on The Briefing and to the credit of its own honesty has admitted the fact that the paper operates from the position of a liberal bias. Its own cultural context and corporate identity has made that abundantly clear for a matter of decades.

Again, Christians must understand the danger that is posed by lies at the expense of the truth. But who gets to define what the truth is in terms of journalism? It turns out, perhaps, to be the bottom line in this news story, the editors wrote a couple of very interesting sentences here, and I quote them in full,

“A man who wrote a number of false news reports told The Washington Post that Trump supporters and campaign officials often shared his false anti-Clinton posts without bothering to confirm the facts and that he believes his work may have helped elect the Republican nominee.”

One of the most interesting aspects of that is the fact that it isn’t documented whatsoever. What you have here is claims being made by one man that he had vast influence. This isn’t the kind of reporting that the editors of the New York Times would allow on any other page of their own newspaper. This points us back to an earlier controversy that appeared even in the 2016 campaign. This is reflected in the fact that we face these days an entire new category of professionals that identify themselves as fact checkers. The fact is that all this raises the question of who is going to check the facts of the fact checkers, and that points us to the fact that there is no position of intellectual neutrality. There is no position of absolute journalistic objectivity. That’s why every intelligent and morally responsible person, Christians included especially, need to make certain that we are not merely the inhabitants of an echo chamber. We also have to be very careful that we’re not playing the game of calling that true which we find agreeable and finding it false when we understand it to be disagreeable. One has to suspect that that’s at least in large part what’s going on here. It’s hard to believe that the election was actually influenced, much less thrown, by the equation of these false news stories. What is more likely, however, that there is pent-up hostility towards any kind of news story that offended the cultural elites and their chosen path for the country.

There is another aspect of this story, and at this point I will defend the editors of the New York Times. We need to remember and for good reason that there is a profession called journalism. There is a system of accountability that is involved in a newspaper as influential and sophisticated as the New York Times. There are persons who dedicate themselves to the profession of journalism and understand what it means to adequately source a story, how to document a story, how to provide a narrative that actually meets journalistic criteria. And added to that at a newspaper like the New York Times there are multiple levels of editors who are also trained journalists. Now as I’ve already said, the New York Times through its public editor has acknowledged that it basically follows a liberal perspective. But at the same time, there are canons of journalistic ethics to which the New York Times holds itself accountable. And that’s true for other major newspapers as well. That’s missing in the Wild Wild West of the World Wide Web.

And Christians need to be very aware of the fact that much of what we see on the web is neither journalistically credible nor is it editorially curated. That is both the genius and the curse of the Internet. It’s what makes the Internet more fresh, more immediate, and more democratic than that curated journalism. But it is also what discounts the credibility of any given new story unless we know the source. And that’s a very important issue for the intellectually responsible person. We need to know the source in order to know what is likely to be authentic and what is likely to be false. That’s why on The Briefing from the very beginning I have cited those news stories that I believe to be credible, sourced to credible news organizations. There can be no question that the editors of the New York Times are right that there is a digital virus called fake news, but they also need to recognize that they themselves have been a catalyst for the emergence of the very problem they there describe. And this underlines for all of us regardless of where we fall on the ideological spectrum to understand that what we now see as journalism often is not. And Christians above all have to remember that truth is not a compliment that we pay to an idea that we like. It is instead an attribute of being objectively true, and for Christians that’s far more important than anything else.

Confrontation between 'Hamilton' cast and Pence illustrates our deep cultural chasm in America

The next story that broke over the weekend, and this to a very wide public conversation, also made the front page of the New York Times. The article’s by Patrick Healy,

“A surprising confrontation erupted on Saturday between President-elect Donald J. Trump and the cast and creators of the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” setting off furious debate over American principles like free speech, respect and the ability to challenge authority in the Trump era.”

Healy went on to remind us that the President-elect demanded an apology from the cast for making what’s described here as an unusual politically-charged appeal from the stage on Friday night to the vice President-elect Mike Pence who was in the audience.

“Urging him,” they write “and Mr. Trump to ‘uphold our American values’ and ‘work on behalf of all of us.’”

At this point, this reporter makes very clear that this front-page story has more to do with the controversy between Mr. Trump and the cast of Hamilton than the event that took place in that New York theater on Friday night. But the real importance of this story and what landed it on the front page of the Sunday edition of the New York Times is made clear in this paragraph:

“The clash between the ‘Hamilton’ actors and Mr. Trump captured the sharply divergent feelings of many Americans 11 days after the election: a showdown between the values of multiculturalism on the left, including the racially diverse “Hamilton” cast and the world of entertainment, and the conservative principles of the incoming Republican administration, which was backed strongly by working-class white voters and traditional Republicans.”

So unexpectedly as we went into the weekend, we found ourselves in a conversation which revealed the deep cultural clash in America, and that cultural conversation had to do with a Broadway musical that’s wildly popular and the incoming Republican administration, first the vice President-elect Mike Pence who actually attended the musical and was confronted after the performance by cast members and then the President-elect of the United States who responded to the entire fracas by means of social media.

The most important issue here is that which was reflected in this front page of the New York Times. This reflects the deep cultural chasm in the United States, and it does so almost perfectly. If you are trying to come up with a perfect way of understanding in a nutshell what’s going on in the cultural division in America, one way we can certainly see it now is in the cultural clash between the cast and the producers of the musical Hamilton and the President. and vice President-elect of the United States.

More importantly, as this New York Times story made clear, it’s not just the President- and Vice President-elect, it is the voters who voted for them. That’s the deep cultural chasm between the left and the right in America. But as we come to understand looking more closely, it’s not just left and right. It is also the clash between the entertainment and cultural elites on the one hand and mass Americans on the other.

Similarly writing at the Washington Post, reporter Philip Rucker said,

“In many ways, “Hamilton” has become a touchstone in America’s ongoing culture wars. Hillary Clinton embraced the musical — its creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, openly supported her candidacy — and recited its lyrics in her speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination.”

One of the things we need to note is that both the right and the left, both Democrats and Republicans in America, tend to try to communicate by means of cultural metaphors. But when you look at this, when you consider for example who appears or who doesn’t appear at the respective party conventions, when you consider who appears and doesn’t appear with the respective nominees of the Democratic and Republican Party during campaigns and thereafter, well there you see the great cultural cleavage in terms of worldview and ideology in the United States. And as we have already seen in the aftermath of the 2016 election, the cultural elite in terms of the cultural productions as they are known, especially those who are the directors and the actors and the producers in terms of musicals in Hollywood, it’s very clear that they are registering their very deep disappointment in the results of the election. The New York Times report tells us that Hamilton’s creator, again Lin-Manuel Miranda, and others,

“discussed the appropriateness of making a statement from the stage and decided to do it only after the show was over. Remarks were written and refined, and after curtain call, Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Vice President Aaron Burr, took a microphone and pointed toward Mr. Pence. ‘You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening — Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out but I hope you hear just a few more moments,’ Mr. Dixon said. As some in the audience booed, Mr. Dixon hushed them, then added, ‘Sir, we hope that you will hear us out.’

Thereafter followed the actor’s speech which we now know was not written by him, but rather by the creator of the show itself. At this point there are some really interesting dimensions of the story. Some observers jumped in and said it was the First Amendment right of the cast members and the producers of Hamilton to say whatever they wanted to say, whenever they wanted to say it, to whomever they wanted to address themselves. But what’s really interesting here is that no one, so far as I’m aware, on the right or the left or anywhere in between has questioned the right of the cast member to make this speech. That’s not really the issue. It’s not really about a First Amendment right. The First Amendment right does not allow a child to speak disrespectfully to his parent. It doesn’t allow a student to speak disrespectfully to a teacher. It is a First Amendment right, that doesn’t mean that speech doesn’t come with consequences. And it is also a matter of fact that one of the things that entered into the conversation is whether or not there is any verbal respect due to the President and Vice President of the United States or to the President-elect and the Vice President-elect of the United States of America even before the inauguration. It’s at this point we come to understand that at both ends of the ideological spectrum, there is often a lack of decorum and respect which is absolutely necessary for civil conversation, and it is something that Christians must understand isn’t just a matter of being polite.

There is a matter of understanding our genuine and common humanity that requires Christians who operate from a biblical worldview to be very careful to speak to every single human being with the respect that individual simply as a human being made in the image of God deserves. But Christians also understand what it means to address and to respect those who are in authority, and that is true whether or not the President of the United States and other political leaders in this country are elected according to our electoral choice or to the choice of others. The respect is the issue that is due to someone, the Bible makes this very clear, simply for the fact that they are rulers over us.

Another interesting dimension of this is the fact that so many on the cultural left feel that they have something of a moral obligation to say everything they think every time they have the opportunity. That’s made very transparent in the story in this paragraph,

“The statement from the “Hamilton” cast on Friday was, on one level, a breach of theater protocol: Rarely if ever do actors on stage directly address a member of the audience and throw down a gauntlet like Mr. Dixon and his castmates did. The actors, with guidance from the show’s creators and producers, chose to wait until the show had ended and they had taken their bows before breaking the wall between performers and audience. They did so, they said, because it was such a tense and anxious time for the country, and because they thought they would be remiss in not taking an opportunity to address Mr. Pence directly.”

Now there you simply have to note, and we have to assume this is an entirely honest statement, that the cast and the producers, the creatives behind Hamilton, felt that they had by their own worldview a moral obligation to do what they did and to say what they said. But if we’re intellectually honest, as we must try to be, we must acknowledge that this kind of temptation will come to the right as well as to the left. But it’s not the temptation that comes, it’s more the opportunity. Because in this light, it’s the left that has far more opportunity than the right because the left is in control of most of the engines of cultural production.

As we saw on The Briefing last week, there were open reports coming from California that many in Hollywood were about ready to go after therapy in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and it appears the same thing is being translated into a new controversy that unexpectedly broke out over the musical Hamilton. For Christians this underlines once again that there is no artifact of culture that does not come laden with worldview. Many people who watched Hamilton and enjoyed it—and there’s no reason not to—did not understand that there was a worldview that was being embedded in it, and that the show was effectively taking a political positions even vis-à-vis the 2016 election. After all, it was at a performance of Hamilton that Hillary Clinton held one of her Manhattan fundraisers, which also reminds us, as we come to the end of the consideration of this story, that it’s a bit easier to make a statement about one’s moral imperative to address the President-elect of the United States if you haven’t publicly opposed him during the campaign. But also evident at this particular moment is the fact that right now virtually everything is political. There is nothing that will not and cannot be politicized almost in an instant. This story was about a Broadway musical, but it could just as easily have been about any other major cultural product. With worldview issues so dividing the American people and dividing the elites from the mass population, there is every reason to expect that today it’s Hamilton, tomorrow it could be just about anything else.

Why do some new buildings not have a 13th floor? Modernity's lingering superstitions

Finally, worldview sometimes shows up in very unexpected ways. For example, a story asking the question, and it’s originating from Charlotte, North Carolina:

“Why new buildings in Charlotte still don’t have a 13th floor”

Ely Portillo writing for the paper tells us,

“If you crane your neck to look skyward at some of the newest towers going up in Charlotte, you might notice an interesting quirk: Most don’t have a thirteenth floor.”

Now at that point I simply have to say that if you did what this reporter calls for, you wouldn’t notice any such thing. If you are standing at ground level looking up at these skyscrapers and you’re counting the stories, you’re going to count the 13th floor. It’s only when you get in the elevator that you discover there is no 13th floor. Portillo writes,

“It’s a quirk that harkens back to old superstitions, real estate traditions and a bit of marketing savvy. I noticed it when I was touring the new 300 South Tryon office tower: The spray-painted numbers on the side of the building that guide the freight elevator skipped straight from 12 to 14.”

The reporter asked,

“Aren’t we past such superstitious beliefs? The answer, it turns out, seems to be no.”

There is no 13th floor on many even very modern buildings. So what’s really going on here? Well you have a reporter here writing a story about architecture looking at the interesting observation that even in this very modern age there is a certain lingering superstition about the number 13, and it’s powerful enough that people who are building the buildings and selling the space inside the buildings understand that people really don’t want to be located on the 13th floor, or at least enough that it would affect the market conditions. But this is where from a Christian worldview perspective, something even deeper kicks in as an observation, and that is this: in a hyper modern age, superstition doesn’t go away. If anything, it returns with an intensity. In an age in which historic Christianity is displaced, we have seen that for instance in Scandinavia the old Norse myths are coming back, and we also note that many modern people who consider themselves hyper secular are also intensely superstitious.

This also leads to another observation. People are routinely now accustomed to buildings lying about how tall they are because even the most honest of these buildings are generally one story shorter than they claim to be. So we start today’s Briefing by talking about so-called fake news stories, and then we end up with a fake building height for many modern towers. And the reason for that it turns out really is an issue of worldview significance. In this hyper modern age, it isn’t that superstition has gone away, it continues in very lingering forms. And, it turns out, even when people pride themselves on being ultra, even hyper modern, they don’t want a 13th floor on their modern buildings.

Dr. Mohler recording The Briefing