22 Jul The Post-Truth Era
“Alternate realities are thriving, fed by media disinformation.” – The Lonely Realist
The late 20th Century was The Golden Age of News. Larger-than-life newscasters earned the public’s trust. They successfully policed the activities of governments, businesses, and industries. “The most trusted man in America” was Walter Cronkite, the anchor for the CBS Evening News. He informed the world and, in doing so, affirmed a common understanding of reality. He distinguished truth from fiction. His agenda was to report facts. He wasn’t in the entertainment business. He wasn’t seeking elective office. His personal beliefs didn’t intrude on the accuracy of his reporting. His integrity – and the public’s trust in that integrity – established “fact.”
But the Walter Cronkite era is over. Mass and social media today provide opiated chat-fodder, the 21st Century’s substitute for news. With truth no longer attracting the eyeballs necessary to pay reporters’ wages, America’s newsrooms have been eviscerated. The media are racing for ratings, providing a platform for influencers to entertain preferences and prejudices. There no longer are Walter Cronkites that the public trusts to distinguish truth from “truthiness.”
Truthiness is the term coined by Stephen Colbert to mean “the belief or assertion that a particular statement is true based on the intuition or perceptions of some individual or individuals without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination or facts.” Colbert added: “It used to be [that] everyone was entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. But that’s not the case anymore. Facts matter not at all.” Truthiness is an expression of ingrained beliefs. Fact-checking takes effort. It’s time-consuming and can be expensive …, and all-too-often leads to audience rejection. Truthiness is safer. It reaffirms entrenched beliefs …, whether or not grounded in fact.
The dictionary defines a “fact” as “a thing that is known or proven to be true,” something that is verifiable. However, the sources cited by media for verification often are partisan organs … or non-existent. How are audiences to distinguish reality from fantasy when what they see and hear is presented as “fact”? Too Many don’t care. For those prone to believe whatever their media champions say, objectivity is a myth, “reality” is a fluid concept, the scientific method is an elite fiction, and fact-finding depends on media choice. “Reality,” in the words of Philip K. Dick, nevertheless “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” It may be labor-intensive to fact-find, but doing so is not an exercise in relativity. Historically, those who chose not to sign onto reality were committed to an asylum. No longer. Today they vote. They find common cause through social media and coalesce into competing tribes.
This sad state of affairs was summed up in May by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres: “Truth is threatened by disinformation and hate speech seeking to blur the lines between fact and fiction, between science and conspiracy” with a colleague adding that social media is “proving fertile ground for those who sow disinformation, hate speech and conspiracy theories…. Our current path is leading us away from informed public debate … towards even more polarization.”
The media exercise enormous influence over the public. They are the purveyors of “perceived realities” and accordingly are a focus of those who seek to manipulate the public’s understanding of truth. The result in America has been an explosion in extreme-belief media validation resulting in the sundering of a shared reality. The purpose of media news has changed from reporting to reinforcing audience views …, an intentional slide down the slope of partisanship and fakery.
Examples abound. Republican-leaning media skewer Bidenomics: “Big spending ‘Bidenomics’ kicked off the highest inflation in four decades, leaving American families paying more for everything”; “In Joe Biden’s economy, Americans are worse off financially”; “Joe Biden’s energy policies continue to make it more expensive for Americans to fill up their cars and to heat and cool their homes.” Democrat-leaning media espouse an opposing view: “Under Bidenomics, unemployment is down to 3.6 percent, and the economy is still adding jobs.” “Inflation is cooling, now down to 3 percent.” “Home prices have held steady, despite high interest rates.” “And the stock market is up more than 15 percent already this year.” Neither side of the partisan circus is telling “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” …, which, after all, is what “the news media” ought to be
“News” reporting is “the dissemination of facts that create a common reality and reconcile truth from falsity.” If truth were the media’s currency, an accurate story would be: “Big spending and lower tax collection by the Federal government over the last 20+ years coupled with lax Federal Reserve policies produced the highest inflation in four decades, leaving Americans paying more for everything. Biden Administration subsidies for COVID relief and incentives for semiconductor and green energy production were among the sparks that ignited America’s recent bout of inflation.”
What should Americans believe? Those who rely on Republican media believe Republican headlines: things are bad and getting worse. Those who favor Democratic media rely on statistics showing that the economy is improving. It’s therefore not surprising that a recent University of Michigan survey found that Democrats expect 2.4% inflation in 2024 while Republicans believe that inflation in 2024 will average 4.9% – quite a difference! When it comes to energy policy, a Pew Research survey found that 90% of Democrat-leaning voters support carbon-neutrality by 2050, while 53% of Republican-leaning voters oppose taking the steps necessary to do so. Is climate change a major threat to America? 78% of Democrats think so, with only 23% of Republicans agreeing – another huge gap! Politicians are in the business of partisanship. Their versions of reality are not intended to educate the public, but to attract votes. Popular media outlets have become organs of partisan politics, irretrievably infected by truthiness. Today, unfortunately, truth is a commodity in all-too-short supply. Who, then, are the purveyors of truth? Where are you finding facts in your search for the truth?
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Finally (from a good friend)