December 9, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, December 9, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The real consequences of fake news: Why evangelicals should be concerned with the truth
The controversy over fake news, as it’s now described, continues to expand, and it also at the same time continues to get more interesting. One of the most interesting entrance into the discussion is Sarah Pulliam Bailey, writing in the “Acts of Faith” column at the Washington Post. She writes,
“Dear evangelicals,Show Full Transcript
“You tease about the mainstream media being ‘Satan’s newspaper.’ When I tell you I’m a journalist, I hear your cynicism.
“Listen, I was raised in an evangelical home. I know the media is supposed to be the butt of many jokes and the source of many of our problems.
“For many conservatives, the phrase ‘fake news’ is now being used to describe “liberal bias,” but fake news has real consequences.”
She goes on to talk about the story that recently took place in a Washington pizza place when a man with a rifle who believed a fake news story about a secret child sex ring showed up and fired at least one shot. The point she is making is that fake news can have real consequences. She writes,
“The jokes aren’t funny anymore. We are living in a post-truth time of fake news and misinformation, something that should be deeply troubling to people of faith who claim to seek truth in their everyday lives.”
Put a hold on that statement for just a moment. Consider this argument that Sarah Pulliam Bailey is making. She is herself a veteran journalist. She points out that she was raised in what she describes as both a religious home and a newspaper home.
“My parents would pull out books for Bible study in the morning and plop them next to the local newspaper. The Bible and newspaper went together like cereal and milk. I grew up believing journalism was a noble profession because the best journalism is based on the relentless pursuit of truth.”
Sarah Pulliam Bailey then goes on to describe why the mainstream media should be invested with a certain kind of journalistic and truthful authority. She points out that even though there are problems with the mainstream media, still there are certain protections, certain standards of professional journalism that pertain, certain structures of accountability including publishers and editors and others. In her words,
“What separates journalists from someone else posting information on the Internet? As journalists, we are guided by certain standards and ethics, taking issues of fairness and bias seriously, including avoiding conflicts of interest. With few exceptions, we are careful to attribute information we report to named sources. We conduct original research, and we fact-check what we write.”
In her concluding words she writes,
“To demean a journalist’s profession of ‘truth-telling’ and to suggest that reporters are uniformly dishonest in their search for the truth threaten to undercut the idea that truth exists and that it can and should be pursued. We know this is true: Firing a gun in a pizza parlor over fake news is no laughing matter.”
Indeed, of course, it is not.
Blurring the line between opinion and news: Do reporters acknowledge complicity in fake news problem?
But we also note that this controversy has spilled over just in the last several days into some places where it had not yet existed, including the pages of the Financial Times in London and where it has existed already but has taken on a new importance, such as the front page of the New York Times. An article by Sabrina Tavernise entitled,
“As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth.”
That news story was on the front page of Wednesday’s edition of the New York Times, rarified journalistic territory indeed. Tavernise writes,
“The proliferation of fake and hyperpartisan news that has flooded into Americans’ laptops and living rooms has prompted a national soul-searching, with liberals across the country asking how a nation of millions could be marching to such a suspect drumbeat. But while some Americans may take the stories literally — like the North Carolina man who fired his gun in a Washington pizzeria on Sunday trying to investigate a false story spread online of a child-abuse ring led by Hillary Clinton — many do not.”
“The larger problem,” she writes, “experts say, is less extreme but more insidious. Fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.”
We should pay particular attention to one authority cited in that story that is Michael Lynch, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. He said,
“There are an alarming number of people who tend to be credulous and form beliefs based on the latest thing they’ve read, but that’s not the wider problem.”
He went on to say,
“The wider problem is fake news has the effect of getting people not to believe real things.”
He described that way of thinking in these words,
“There’s no way for me to know what is objectively true, so we’ll stick to our guns and our own evidence. We’ll ignore the facts because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.”
Now once again hold onto that for just a moment and listen as the New York Times reporter here explains and defines fake news. She writes,
“Narrowly defined, ‘fake news’ [that’s put in quotation marks] means a made-up story with an intention to deceive, often geared toward getting clicks. But the issue has become a political battering ram, with the left accusing the right of trafficking in disinformation, and the right accusing the left of tarring conservatives as a way to try to censor websites. In the process, the definition of fake news has blurred.”
As another individual quoted in the story says,
“Fake news is subjective. It depends on who’s defining it. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Shrugging at the truth: How postmodernism paved the way for fake news
In recent days, the Financial Times of London ran a major essay on social media, the major media and so-called fake news. That paper made the argument that false stories have become headline news in the United States, most particularly in the recent presidential election. The Financial Times article gets on to another aspect of this, and this is the decentering of authority when it comes to information in our culture. There is a certain nostalgia in the Financial Times article for a time in which there were major brands in terms of the media, major journalistic enterprises, the three television networks in the United States, we might say, along with major authoritative daily newspapers, those and along with news services, wire services that conveyed stories carried by many newspapers basically served as the journalistic front lines and as the major institutions of culture and information shaping, add to that opinion in the United States of America. But that monopoly has long since been broken and we are now living in what can only be described as a Wild Wild West of information.
But of course if it’s the Wild Wild West of information, it is similarly a vast frontier of misinformation as well. I think at this point from a Christian worldview perspective we should register a significant problem with the very category of fake news. For one thing, Sarah Pulliam Bailey is clearly right when she argues that Christians should be very concerned with the issue of truth, if anything that’s an understatement. But the problem is that the word ‘news’ and the word ‘truth’ are not exactly the same. We would certainly hope that the news contains the truth and nothing but the truth, and we would also hope that the truth makes news. But what is now routinely called news is actually, let’s be honest, a consumer product. And where there is a consumer product at some point that product is going to have to meet consumer demands.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey is writing as a Christian and she comes from an evangelical family that has been invested in journalism as a profession for a very long time. And I certainly share with her the concern about the decentering of the very idea of authority and truth telling in terms of the news media. We also have to recognize that she’s absolutely right—this is a point we’ve made over and over again—that evangelical Christians have to be very concerned about the reality of truth, and we have to be very determined to do our utmost to separate the truth from error.
But the problem with the category of fake news is that the news as a category simply isn’t able to sustain this level of scrutiny. A couple of quick observations here. You’ll notice on The Briefing that in almost every single case in which I mention an article on this program, it is an article from the mainstream media. Why is that so? It is because of my own background in journalism and my own investment in the news industry and my own understanding that there really is a set of professional standards that applies and is very important, that there really is a certain level of credibility that is attached to the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and to other mainstream branded media, simply because they are committed to a certain level of journalistic excellence and they are accountable to specific journalistic standards.
But at the same time, I would have to blame many of those very same mainstream media outlets for being part of a culture that has subverted the very idea of truth and the idea of authority, and has simultaneous to holding themselves to these journalistic standards failed to make the distinction that is necessary between opinion and news. And this shows up in the complaint in that New York Times front-page story. I go back to this,
“Fake news and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true.”
Now that’s certainly a very factual assessment that is to say it’s true. But the distinction, the qualifier that follows in which fake news is followed by “and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news” represents the fact that the left is very capable of recognizing raw opinion that passes as news. That’s the phrase from the New York Times when it is found on the right, that is amongst conservatives. The thing I want to point out is that the left appears to be stunningly unable to recognize the same when it is presented in the mainstream media and that’s a huge problem. Many in the mainstream media rightly recognize that there has developed on the right an alternative media environment that increasingly functions as an echo chamber, that is simply resounding conservative opinion over and over again in one form or another, whether it’s newsworthy or not. But what the left often fails to recognize is that it has created its own echo chamber and in this case it’s an echo chamber that is often protected by the very institutions of the mainstream media that claim to be balanced or at least fair and professional.
Now I’m going to speak up again for the professionalism of those journalists and for the fact that there is a certain credibility and authority that attaches itself to that kind of professionalism. But there are particular problems in the mainstream media in terms of what might also be described as fake news. That’s not to say that they are deliberately false news stories, it is to say that there is often an inability to see where there is an imbalance in terms of the coverage of an issue that is itself scandalous and furthermore, this takes place also in the sourcing, which is either present or absent in so many of these stories.
I made this point recently to a secular journalist when to her credit she called me in order to gauge in the opinion of an evangelical Christian on a question. It was an important question, it was a question from headline news and I appreciated the fact that this reporter went to the work to call me and ask the question. The problem is this: she would not have had to place a call to someone on the other side of the equation, because almost certainly she works with those people, she knows those who hold to that position. As I made the point to her she had to call me, she can simply go to lunch with one of her friends for the other side, and that’s because there’s so few persons in terms of many venues in the mainstream media who have any direct acquaintance with the more conservative perspective or worldview in America.
Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post to their credit have worked hard to have at least one conservative columnist in terms of the regular features of the newspaper. But that just illustrates the problem. If they have to work so hard to be able to say that they have one or two editorial writers in terms of the opinion page, that tells you something about the overwhelming slant. On The Briefing in recent months I have cited the fact that the New York Times public editor is often very candid about this, as has been the publisher of the paper acknowledging this is basically a liberal newspaper and operates with a liberal perspective. Fair enough, but don’t be surprised at that point when more conservative Americans hold suspect not only the editorial-page but the news coverage.
In terms of the news coverage things that are often off the screen of people wondering about editorial bias include reporter assignment, issue selection, the attribution of sources, and one of the issues if we’re going to talk about fake news that also has to be brought to attention is another pattern that I point to again and again on The Briefing, and that is where very credible newspapers run front-page stories on what are described to be scientific findings or research and that runs on the front page and is often affirmed in terms of editorial comment on the opinion pages. What then does not make the front page is when so many of those stories are later corrected or retracted. Well, to use the category of fake news, if this story is basically later retracted, was the original story that ran on the front page of one of America’s most authoritative newspapers itself fake news?
So to summarize, we are agreeing that there is a problem with fake news, but I’m also taking issue with the very category. The issue isn’t fake news, the issue is the distinction between truth and untruth, or to put it in a more classically biblical way, the difference between the truth and the lie. Either one can actually be news in terms of a commodity. But the truth is what Christians must be concerned about in terms of a paramount consideration. And in order to know the truth in a journalistic context this means we need to be certain that we are reading several different sources, that we are not immersing ourselves within any kind of echo chamber and, furthermore, we have to train ourselves to understand what really does represent credibility and professionalism in journalism. And we have to understand where there is a news source that is credible and accountable and where there is one that is not.
For this reason it is important to note that when it comes to the recording of history, of which journalism is also a part, even in the future it will be conservatives that look to those old authoritative sources of mainstream journalism in order to document history. The rightful concern for truth reminds me that this has been a very long battle. The fake news controversy may be a matter of very contemporary conversation, but just remember that back as early as the 1960s and 1970s, Christian thinkers such as Francis Schaeffer were insisting that Christians had to not only be concerned with truth, but with what he called true truth. That means that already in the period just after World War II, there were already many prominent intellectuals in the West who were undermining the very existence or knowability of truth. Fast-forward to the 1980s and the 1990s when a movement known as postmodernism became so effective in the academy that even though it is not mentioned anymore. It’s not because it disappeared, but because its worldview became so permanently ensconced, even, you might say, tenured. The left should certainly not be surprised when the toxic ideologies that it inflicted upon America’s students on the college campus have shown up in terms of that which is now aided and abetted by the digital age.
I ask you to hold one other thought, and that’s the statement that was found in the Financial Times concerning the dissenting of authority when it comes to journalism and news. The Financial Times declares that old authorities have become muted in a world where users’ voices are preeminent. Now here’s what we need to note, the word authority has itself been intentionally suspect on the left for a matter of over a generation now. As a matter of fact, you can date this back in public life, at least to the 1960s. Once again the left shouldn’t be surprised. When you deny and subvert authority, eventually your own authority becomes subverted and denied.
Professor Michael Lynch cited in that New York Times article described the way of thinking that now afflicts many Americans as this, again,
“There’s no way for me to know what is objectively true, so we’ll stick to our guns and our own evidence. We’ll ignore the facts because nobody knows what’s really true anyway.”
Now in this case, this professor was trying to summarize something that he was not only describing, but criticizing. Any intelligent, responsible Christian would join with him in this criticism, but once again note what he has used here: the phrase objectively true. He’s a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut. One of the problems is a decreasing number of professors of philosophy even believe in the category of objective truth.
From a biblical worldview perspective, here’s a bit of a lesson for us. It’s one thing to deny objective truth in the classroom, but it’s another thing to turn around and to bemoan its loss when it comes to the world of journalism and the digital domain of information. What can we hope for out of all of this? Well, I can certainly hope that this controversy may lead Christians to a deeper consideration, a very thoughtful consideration about how we consume information, what we consider to be credible news, what kind of information we are seeking and upon what authority are we making judgments as to whether something is true or false. Christians simply do not have the luxury of not caring about the distinction between the true and the false. This is a matter of our most intense Christian responsibility. We also have to recognize that terms themselves can be slippery things, fake, news, facts, truth. Those are all words that have to be defined.
One of our responsibilities as faithful Christians is to pay close attention to the fact that we do care about the truth, we build our worldview on the affirmation of truth and we seek to be a people of truth and that means we want to know the truth, we want to know what is true. But that gets back to the question of what kind of information we receive, how we intentionally seek to receive the most credible information, how the Christian worldview shapes our understanding and frames everything that we read, everything that we hear, everything that we’ve seen in order that we filter everything through the ultimate authority of God’s revealed truth in Scripture. And this is where Christians also have to remember that authority is not some kind of postmodern concept to be subverted. It is a matter of God’s intention for humanity. And thus as we even understand human society and culture, we come to understand that certain authorities are necessary and are worthy of the respect and credibility that comes with the right wielding of that authority. This puts an enormous responsibility upon the mainstream media. And we can also hope that there might be a reawakening, perhaps a very rude reawakening in this context to the fact that they also have a responsibility that has not been well stewarded in recent decades. And Christians should also respect those who are good stewards of that responsibility and understand that in so doing, those who fulfill that responsibility well serve us all.
The Bible’s doctrine of sin warns every one of us of the fact that both as writers and as readers, as purveyors of the news and as recipients of the news, we are all prone to sin and we are fallible when it comes to our own understanding. That is why we need to be very careful and exercise our own very proper stewardship of our processing of information in order that we may know that which is true and recognize that which is true because that’s the first step towards also recognizing what is false. That New York Times headline was once again,
“As Fake News Spreads Lies, More Readers Shrug at the Truth.”
Shrugging at the truth is a luxury that Christians cannot afford themselves.
"The last true national hero": John Glenn, first American to orbit the Earth, dies at age 95
Finally, as we bring this edition of The Briefing to a close, we note the death yesterday of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth who died at age 95. Matt Schudel writing for the Washington Post says,
“John Glenn, who captured the nation’s attention in 1962 as the first American to orbit the Earth during a tense time when the United States sought supremacy over the Soviet Union in the space race, and who rocketed back into space 36 years later, becoming the oldest astronaut in history, died Dec. 8 at a hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Mr. Glenn, who in his post-NASA career served four terms as a U.S. senator from Ohio, was 95.”
Tom Wolfe who definitively wrote about the space race in his book “The Right Stuff” described John Glenn as,
“The last true national hero America has ever had.”
The Mercury Seven astronauts as they were known, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Gus Grissom, Walter Schirra, Alan Shepard, Deke Slayton and John Glenn, were seven of the most familiar names to Americans alive in the early 1960s and beyond. They were true American heroes in terms of the space race, and this was during the context of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union when the race to space was more than about space and it was more than about technology. It was about who was owning the future, the communist vision of the Soviet Union or the Democratic freedom vision of the West.
When John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, it was a moment of rare and undiminished national pride for the United States. But we also have to recognize that this was a generation forged by the adversity and the trial of World War II and the Korean War. John Glenn flew 59 combat missions in World War II. He flew a total of 149 combat missions in both World War II and the Korean War. At one point he flew this plane back to the base with over 200 bullet holes in it. John Glenn, in terms of his heroism was one of those men Tom Wolfe got right when he entitled his book, “The Right Stuff.”
In his life after NASA John Glenn did indeed become a member the United States Senate. His name was so famous that was almost a destiny. But the interesting thing to note there is that even as John Glenn became a basically center-left Democrat in the United States Senate, even Americans who disagreed with his politics recognized that John Glenn was a hero as an American astronaut and that he was one of several of those young men who had been forged in World War II and the Korean War and had fought for this nation on the sea and in the air and on the land. And when America needed them in the space race they were ready. As Tom Wolfe rightly said, they had “the right stuff.” That raises a crucial question for those of us of this generation, are we now producing Americans who will have the right stuff? This much we know, time will tell.