Why It’s So Hard to Get The Truth in a Media-Saturated World

Most everyone has read a piece in a newspaper or magazine or watched a TV show and detected a glaring error in it. I spent a fair amount of my life as a long-distance commuter (50 miles+) which gave me ample time to listen to all sorts of radio: AM talk (mostly religious and conservative talk shows), FM talk/variety (mostly NPR with a light sprinkling of Pacifica Radio’s hard-left KPFKand a dash of music of some variety or another. One day when I was commuting home, I was listening to KFI AM 640 and the host was talking about something I was conversant on: recycling sewage to be used as a drinking water supply for a large metropolitan area. The host was making blatant factual errors about the history, science, and technology associated with recycled water, interspersing her comments with ‘ew’ and ‘yuck’ (somewhat understandably, I’ll concede) and I felt something like the guy in this cartoon: Someone is wrong on the itnernet 11-29-14

I don’t know if it was righteous indignation coupled with Boy Scout do-gooder-ism, but after a quick head-swivel scan of the freeway, I detected no California Highway Patrol units in the vicinity so I got out the cell phone and proceeded to break the law by calling the radio station, to set that ignorant host straight, dagnabbit!

I wasn’t expecting to get through, but it was a Saturday, and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself speaking with the show’s call screener, and a few minutes later I was on the air for a glorious 30 seconds of fame and notoriety.

I explained the highly scientific and eloquently engineered treatment process and how strict regulations by the State of California protects the public’s health, etc.; I gave the host the pure milk of truth, only the good stuff (because, 30 seconds). Surely now the host would see the error of her ways and thank me for helping remove the scales from her darkened eyes.

Uhh, no.

Some of the scales from my eyes, however, had made their way out.

My mother liked to tell the story of a family outing when I was a wee lad of 5 or so where there was a Myna Bird on the premises who was trained to say, “Are you a Myna Bird?” and I proceeded to patiently explain to the Myna Bird, “No, I’m a human…my name is…” and so on.

My facts meant nothing – zero, zilch, nada, goose egg, bupkis – to the host. Like so many of those in the media, the host was looking to be entertaining to boost ratings and maximize advertising revenue. Facts, schmacts. My conversation with the Myna Bird was more meaningful.

Turning to a more serious note, the events in Ferguson, Missouri have provided the latest example on why it’s so hard to get to the truth of a story.

Unless people aren’t interested or give up and swallow the blue pill of Solipsism, to get at something like the truth in media we humans must bushwhack through a thicket of tendentiousness, slog through a swamp of subjectivity, and sojourn through a searing desert of agenda journalism.

Red pill Blue pill 11-29-14 If it pleases the court, I now present Exhibit ‘A’ of what’s known as the Rashomon Effect, using CNN’s Don Lemon and Van Jones, who both were on the ground in Ferguson, Missouri when stores were being looted and buildings started to go up in flames after the announcement that the grand jury would not be filing charges against the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown:


Two guys, ostensibly media professionals, at the same place reporting on the same event, come up with radically different accounts/explanations for it. Isn’t that interesting?

Thomas Sowell said, “Facts do not ‘speak for themselves.’ They speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theories or visions are mere isolated curiosities.” This appears to be what happened with Lemon and Jones: both of them saw the same events, but the way they processed and interpreted them, that is, their ‘competing theories’, are vastly different.

Peter Wehner, writing in Commentary, adds his two cents:

It’s of course the case that our experiences shape how we perceive reality. We all interpret events in a somewhat different way and none of us perceives truth perfectly. But that is a world apart from a license to interpret events in a way that’s false.

Wehner is correct in making the point that we humans see reality through the prism of our life experiences and values/points of view we hold. The point of Wehner’s piece is that some in media, especially CNN, were engaging in agenda journalism in Ferguson:

It was painful to watch reporters, with child-like melodrama, pretend they were part of a great civil-rights story. But 2014 isn’t 1965, and Ferguson, Missouri isn’t the Edmund Pettus Bridge. 

Which brings us to Confirmation Bias, the tendency to search for, interpret, or remember information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.

To perhaps oversimply, Confirmation Bias is why people who are conservative tune in to FOX News and people who are liberal watch MSNBC; they’re looking to get their point of view substantiated and verified once again.

It is my considered opinion that FOX and MSNBC are echo chambers of their respective points of view, preaching to their respective choirs and throwing red meat to the more ravenous of their respective tribes. In terms of profitability/ratings/business model, FOX has consistently out-performed MSNBC, while MSNBC’s ratings continue their downward trajectory, with a parallel in radio-land, where Rush Limbaugh and several other conservative talk show hosts like Sean Hannity and Hugh Hewitt enjoy good ratings and hence are profitable, while the liberal ‘Air America’ went the way of the Dodo some time ago (PBS and NPR remain on the air, with an infusion of cash from government and private donations.)

As far as those glaring errors most of us have detected in newspaper and magazine articles, etc.,  a most useful tool in the astute media consumer’s tool pouch is the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect* as described by the late, great Michael Crichton:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well… You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward–reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story–and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

In areas I am reasonably knowledgeable in – Christianity, wastewater treatment, and firearms – I have seen many examples where it is painfully obvious (when the pangs of Fremdschämen start to well up within me) the person has no idea of what they’re talking about, but they write or speak confidently as if they’re an authority on the subject, disseminating sober facts that people can rely on to inform their world.

Incidentally, in those instances where your family or friends experience Fremdschämen on your behalf (and they have or will), it is best to experience the momentary embarrassment of being corrected and being thankful for the correction, for it is the well and true friend who tells you your zipper is down, or that a gigantic piece of spinach has taken up residence between your teeth, or a booger the size of a snow pea has somehow wandered out of your nose cave into the light of day (not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything). Crichton ends with a rejection of the blue pill of solipsism and an affirmation that the truth can be found out through work, diligence, and proper methodology:

In closing, I’d remind you that while there are some things we cannot know for sure, there are many things that can be resolved, and indeed are resolved. Not by speculation, however. By careful investigation, by rigorous statistical analysis. Since we’re awash in this contemporary ocean of speculation, we forget that things can be known with certainty, and that we need not live in a fearful world of interminable unsupported opinion.

Crichton concedes digging for the truth in media is tiring work:

Personally, I think we need to start turning away from media, and the data shows that we are, at least from television news. I find that whenever I lack exposure to media I am much happier, and my life feels fresher.

On the one hand, if you immerse yourself in the quest to tease truth from fiction in the media world without respite, you will experience fatigue, perhaps some Weltschmerz and the like. Prescription: Unplug from time to time. Listen to beautiful music. Read wonderful books. Go out in the great outdoors and get some exercise. Eat delicious food. Hang out with friends and family. On the other hand, we live in a world, as Sowell said, where “Politics is the art of making your selfish desires seem like the national interest” and George Orwell said, “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. ” That is, we live in a fallen world, full of representatives of the crooked timber of humanity (it appears *especially* to be the case in the political and media world). The media in the western world can be a wonderful check and watchdog on those in power, but we ourselves must not over-depend on them, and we can’t *not* check and verify, like the Bereans of old did with the words of St. Paul, that they are factually correct; that they are, in fact, the truth.  

UPDATE, 11-30-14 at 10:30 A.M., PST: There’s a lot of dangerous misinformation coming from some in media about the use of deadly force in the form of firearms by police officers. Read this informative post by Michael Yon which answers the question, ‘Why didn’t the officer shoot Michael Brown in the legs?” Also read this piece on why one police officer who used to carry 47 rounds of ammo now carries 145 rounds after a life and death encounter with a bank robber. *Kind thanks to Thomas L. McDonald‘s terrific article on the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect

UPDATE No 2, 5-30-15 at 1:57 P.M., PST: This piece by Peter Wehner at Commentary is a good treatment on the limits of human knowledge and understanding, also touching on why partisan/political differences are as sharp as they are these days.



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