Getting Real about “Fake News”

I started collecting newspapers in 1981. That was when the Iran hostage crisis just ended and as Ronald Reagan was about to take the oath of office. Even as a pre-teen back then, I had a sense that times were changing and that it was important to remember that event. Since then, I have periodically saved various newspapers for events that seemed significant at the time.

Growing up in Florida, it seemed our local newspaper catered more to tourists than printing real news. As a remedy, sometimes I would go to downtown Daytona Beach and walk over to a small shop right next to the old post office on Beach Street. I would pay $1.15 for a Chicago Tribune that was already a few days old (in the pre-Internet age). Back then, that was a lot of money for a paper. There was just something about reading a real newspaper. I actually remember creating my own newspaper with a manual typewriter. I used various stencils to create the title and then I would write up fake stories…oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself!

My late grandmother graciously gave me several old newspapers she had saved (apparently this runs in the family), which only further sparked my interest. One very significant one I still have is the inaugural launch of The Chicago Sun, December 4, 1941. The caption under the title reads “The New Morning Newspaper”:

If you can read the text of this photo I took of the front page, you can see the war in Europe kept the presses hot. Naturally, there is deep significance to this particular paper, coming just a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. It was a shock (to most people anyway) when Japan attacked and America was plunged into war. That kind of surprise does not happen often. When it does, for example on how presidential elections sometimes turn out, it often takes a lot of time to sort things out. There are often many casualties along the way.

A serious casualty recently has been the news itself. This is often referred to as “fake news”. I define fake news as essentially blatant, gross, and often repeated inaccuracies, reported and formatted as news, and consumed as news, for manipulative purposes. It is the talk of social media, and for good reason. Traditional news outlets were caught completely off guard when Trump won the electoral delegates and the White House. Along the way, many on social media posted a variety of dubious “articles” under the guise of news. Countless sites create layouts that look like a newspaper. The headlines grab the attention of the reader. The content seems to be supported by various “sources”. Yet something is dreadfully amiss: there is a fundamental degradation of reliable and trustworthy news. I see minimally three contributing factors:

  1. Trust. Many of us still actually trust “mainstream” sources, though there seems to be a steady erosion of that trust. I recently commented to a friend that when Walter Cronkite went on the air to announce the assassination of President Kennedy, this was the epitome of trust in a newscaster. His emotions were genuine. The nation choked up with him on live TV in the realization of a profound loss. He and other newscasters of that era were genuinely trustworthy. While I am not a historian, the 1960s was a dramatic turning point in our country. That same decade our country slipped into chaos and distrust. “I am not a crook” Nixon would boldly say exactly 10 years later. It is speculation to suggest Cronkite marked the high water mark of public trust in the news, but it would not be too far off the think so.
  2. Sources and Channels. Many of us who can recall such events can also recall there were but a small number of news outlets. For that matter, on our TV dial we had a total of 4 networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. That was it! While there were differences between them, it’s like asking what kind of chicken do you want? Fried? Baked? BBQ? It was still chicken! We all know with the Internet we cannot even count how many channels (figuratively speaking) there are. Moreover, the sheer number of sources from which news outlets compile news is astounding. Like modern grocery shopping, there are vast numbers of canned products with dubious authenticity and manipulative labeling.
  3. Frequency and Consumption. I grew up with a morning and evening paper. In Chicago, some papers ran multiple editions daily. While radio and television filled some of the day with news, even WBBM AM only broadcast all news starting in 1968. With growing appetites for news, more stations devoted more and more time to broadcasting news or adding talk. Again, with the Internet came more and more options for non-stop news. We have become hungry consumers of news, and there are vendors of all sorts of news for all sorts of appetites.

This is not an exhaustive list, but notice how easy it is to see how we have gotten where are are today: eroding trust, exploding sources, and endless (and instant) delivery has provided a climate where fake news can grow unabated. I certainly cannot see an end to this anytime soon. Our culture is obsessed with news, particularly when it feeds into one’s pre-defined viewpoints. Bias rules the day. All the old trusted sources have lost their claims of objectivity. In a democratic society that demands insider knowledge, we are at a precarious moment in our history.

I cannot say I have a ready answer. It is not like we can turn back the clock.

My advice is plain enough: if a news source regularly seems to say things with which you strongly agree (emotionally and intellectually), you might want to rethink your news sources. In other words, critical thinking is essential. Ask yourself, “what might be motivating a particular article or story?”. Is there an agenda that can be discerned? Maybe so. Perhaps all modern news sources have an agenda. Be mindful of that and consider how you might be an unwitting target for manipulation.

Read a variety of sources, comparing and contrasting their “facts” and also the emotional ramifications (as in, how do you feel after reading a certain article?). There are still times when most outlets will be on track and we can trust the report. I simply think we cannot afford blind trust of our news sources.

The only other alternative is to withdraw into hermit life or subversive countercultures. That’s a pathetic way to live in a democracy!

Married at First Rite

We all have our weaknesses, so don’t be too quick to judge: my wife and I are hooked on the reality show Married at First Sight. Let me defend myself for a moment. First, we seldom watch regular TV. We have cable, but it’s not even hooked up. It’s just to reduce my Internet connection cost (believe it or not, it’s cheaper to have cable TV plus Internet than just Internet alone). We do have an Internet streaming device (I won’t say which one to avoid turning this into a tech post). Second, while we have been outdoors enjoying the summer, the recent onslaught of oppressively hot and humid weather has compelled us to crash in the basement. “What’s on TV?” Well, let’s scroll through, shall we?

Okay, maybe these aren’t good reasons to sit through reality shows. We actually started with Teenage Newlyweds. Well, that show is so-so. But we really got hooked on Married at First Sight (MaFS) for whatever reason. The funny thing is that we really did get drawn in. We wondered which marriage would really make it. In fact, we could see which couples appeared to be really trying and which were just playing. I won’t go so far as to recommend anyone watch this, nor do I want to go into great details about the show. That’s not the point here.

What is the point? It occurred to me after watching a number of episodes that most people realized that the higher goal of their marriage was to become a better person. To be sure, some really weren’t interested in that. It seems like a number of their applicants to this show didn’t really think it through!

Admittedly, the premise of the show that puts a 6-week window on the “experiment” and then they decide to stay together or get a divorce is a fatal flaw. I utterly disagree with divorce and find it tragic (yes, there are arguably some biblical reasons for divorce — it’s still tragic). Yet I see a glimmer of the gospel in this. What? How so, Mr. Jared??

God’s grace comes to us from above. The Lord gives all of us a taste of it — something called common grace. I never realized until this show that such a grace could be an instrument of God’s call to Christ and the good news in what appears to be entirely a secular marriage. Christian marriage is sometimes referred to as sacramental. “A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. God gives us the sign as a means whereby we receive that grace, and as a tangible assurance that we do in fact receive it (1662 Catechism).” In Anglican settings, it’s referred to more often as a “sacramental rite”.

…most people realized that the higher goal of their marriage was to become a better person.

What I see is key is that there is a gracious, redemptive movement inherent in marriage. As silly as MaFS really is, there is something redemptive in it; it’s a dimly lit grace to be sure. For all its overt secularism, I’ve noted a few things to ponder:

  1. Each couple has trusted others (the so-called “experts”) to select their marriage partner. It harkens to old world traditions where parents or other family elders helped couples forge together their lives. It is a novel twist on an ancient practice, but it shows late-modern generations realize they need help to build a healthy marriage.
  2. Despite the sexual revolution and all its baggage, there remains a general understanding that marriage between one man and one woman is inherently complementary. I know our culture is currently arguing that isn’t true, but shouting louder than history and common sense doesn’t make a thing true.
  3. It was stunning how often the word “trust” comes up in this show. The couples really struggle with trusting perfect strangers, which is no surprise. Yet they trusted the experts — to a point, anyway. In ancient cultures an arranged marriage would not have had a 6-week experimental window and then ask if they should remain married or get a divorce. If they really trusted the experts, they should have said a year — minimum! In other words, trust develops over time when coupled with an intractable commitment. It’s an outcome of total loyalty, despite the range of emotions bombarding them on any given day. That’s the stuff of enduring marriages, and for all the talk of trust they always have this back door escape plan.

…shouting louder than history and common sense doesn’t make a thing true.

Marriage is intended to do far more than make one happy. It is God’s uniquely gracious instrument of transformation. It is a blessed sign of an inward grace, which I believe goes far beyond the wedding ceremony. It’s a sacramental rite every time a spouse does a loving and selfless act. Come on, gents: take out the trash! It’s a grace-infused, love-enhancing thing to do. As for our culture, this popular show reveals that marriage is still a fundamental component of society. We cry for good reasons at a wedding: it’s a powerfully sacramental moment, even if we don’t realize it.