By Ken Frederic | May 06, 2019

Last week was the second week of Easter. The story of "doubting Thomas" challenges Christians to examine their own belief. Our pastor took that challenge a step further, asking not just do you believe, but, what do you believe? The question is intentionally unsettling and more difficult to answer. It is, moreover, not limited to questions of faith.

A phone app advertisement includes the line “…I was only listening to news I agreed with.” Is it even possible to agree or disagree with news? If so, what do you believe "news" is? Is getting news from “all sides” even a rational thought? If so, what are the sides?

The term “yellow journalism” dates back to 1883, when competition between William Randolph Hurst and Joseph Pulitzer for readership spawned something also called “checkbook journalism.” The competition for sensational headlines and a good narrative led to selective reporting of facts and exaggerated interpretation of what those facts demonstrated. Checkbook journalism is intense today. The proliferation of cable news channels, online publications and social media has done nothing to reduce the homogenization of exaggeration, opinion and fact. Few people get their news from printed media, so providers can target readers with individual pieces based on what they’ve read before: We’ll be fed news we “agree with.” But much of the media actively advocates for one "side," and that has led to opposing "news" being suppressed.

We complain about negative political advertisements, but consultants tell candidates a negative assertion, once attached to the opposition, will require eight repetitions of refuting facts to overcome. Smearing is just good economic strategy. And, despite what is often said, purveyors of "news" have no pocketbook motive to unite Americans. We’ve become divided and subdivided into opposing groups by political affiliation, economic status, gender, age, religion, race, region and ideology. Feeding the divisions gets clicks, and clicks get advertising dollars. If what we believe about the other side is about negative personal characteristics ,not specific actions, it’s likely we’ve uncritically consumed selective reporting (fake news).

Getting real news is hard work, and it’s unpleasant, because checkbook journalism is pervasive and so is openly advocating for an agenda or a political party or an ideology. Sensational negative assertion sells better than boring facts. Senate Democrats last Wednesday confirmed, as if confirmation were needed, that all pretense of civility and truth-seeking has been abandoned in favor of hateful and offensive speechifying that will feed the hatemongers for weeks. Anyone who had read Robert Mueller’s report would know that none of those berating the attorney general had read it. But those senators were duty bound to read it, and not just throw a tantrum because the facts in it ended their attempted coup. What do you believe about the Mueller report, the "collusion" assertions, and the "obstruction" assertions?

What do you believe about Michael Avenatti, William Barr, Michael Cohen, Brett Kavanaugh, Robert Mueller, Nick Sandmann, Jussie Smollett, Michael Steele or others who’ve been in the news? For many of us, the answer may be: “Who do they play for?” But these people are key figures in current events and their stories represent information about issues that we are obliged to understand as citizens of our republic. While we elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf, it remains our duty to understand and oversee what they do and how they do it. It’s not enough to pick the candidate we’d most like to have a beer with, or worse, pick a candidate because someone we did have a beer with pronounced him a good guy. Sadly, that is what most of voters do.

If we would like less checkbook journalism and more adult behavior from our representatives, it will be up to us to make that happen. We must listen to what is unpleasant and separate facts from opinions and assertions. Only then is it valid for us to conclude which sources and individuals are honest brokers or dishonest and unethical "feather merchants" not worthy of further attention (or reelection). Only when people stop listening will the behavior of news providers change. Only when we make informed and rational, not emotional, choices at the polls and show our legislators we are paying attention by calling and writing will their behavior change.

What do you believe, and what will you do about it?

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Comments (1)
Posted by: George Terrien | May 14, 2019 10:19

Compellingly put, Mr. Horvath.  Your words swell the growing river of good sense wide and deep enough to carry us all to a better future.

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