Today’s post goes waaaaaaay off the beaten path for this blog. Not talking about Jesus vis-à-vis the homeless, and it only relates in the most complex and tangential ways. But I have some thoughts about “fake news” which I don’t see anyone else talking about. So, here goes…
When I Was a Child
I never have been a newspaper guy. Not really. I started “watching” the news when I was a kid. I was a small kid when the Vietnam War was broadcast on home television screens nightly, and that was a new thing. I was too young to understand what I saw there, and in those earliest days, I had no real interest – but surely the timing of my childhood plays a role in my experience. Thus, I developed a category in my young mind for news programs on TV. Why would I go to the trouble of READING in print, searching through pages, for what I could WATCH a TV newscaster spoon feed me?
Soon I was familiar with Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, by name and face, by the end of the 1970s. I wasn’t even 10 years old when I began taking seriously some of the reports I was watching. And while I don’t think I purposely sought out the nightly news for my own interest, I was keenly aware that my dad and grandparents took this programming seriously, and so some of it was gravitating me too.
I definitely remember the “mysterious illness” which had “struck gay men” and the deep concern that developing story stirred over time. I don’t recall it being nearly as important a story to my folx, since none of us were gay and we had no close family or friends who were either. Thus, my memory of that is something of a benchmark in my mind for how my childhood began developing an interest in social concerns and news. And, of course, that story grew up with me becoming a decade’s long, ongoing public health issue we eventually called AIDS and then HIV infection.
I also recall a night when Peter Jennings noted that the price of gas in California had risen over a dollar a gallon for the first time.
I was too young to really know Walter Cronkite and the immense trust he had built with his television journalism in the larger society. Looking back, I can plainly see where he expressed opinion, helped to drive at least a few segments of the news cycle, and where he even challenged “the government” with regard to the Vietnam War. His news did not come to the public in some filter-free and completely unbiased way. But he managed to develop trust.
All of that, though, was in the backdrop for me. I, in fact, knew nothing of that stuff when I was young. I was just too young to see into nuances like that, and for that matter, even today, I am not well educated in journalism or news media. Just a lifelong consumer. I have some insights, but not that much.
As a Bible student, I have come to study a lot of history and to see that all telling of history comes from some viewpoint and passes through some kind of filter. God just did not make us to tell unbiased reports of anything. The idea of “absolute truth” itself is mythical since it too is put through filters and biases – even as a category of ideas. (This point is not the point of my post, and so I will not develop it further, but I will suggest that God does offer us trust – faith, fidelity, integrity, and honesty – through which to share and communicate. To the extent we do that, we can know the truth!)
Of course, NO ONE talks about that kind of thing when it comes to the news.
I am learning from more recent American history, that newspapers have long warred with each other, slanting stories along decidedly political lines. I am also learning how profoundly this kind of thing impacted presidents and elections on the past. It’s not really a new thing. In fact, the trust that Walter Cronkite (and thus the next generation following him to some degree) enjoyed was probably the new thing as far as news media is concerned.
But, none of that is my story. Most of my life I have been oblivious to all of this. Especially as a kid, I just assumed that the news was basically a matter of historical fact presented in current times. I trusted Brokaw and Jennings (and others), and in the decade following the Vietnam War, I was unaware (and still am) of any major breaches of trust by those professional journalists and their organizations (the one possible/major exception being Brian Williams who actually promoted himself as trustworthy before being proven a liar).
Now, I was just a kid and could not articulate some of the nuances I was seeing, but they were nuances and not major impactful differences. I never actually sat and listened to William F. Buckley as he droned on about his take on things. I would sooner read the phone book. But he certainly provided a foundation in my mind and a model for conservative ideals and how they are expressed. I recognized that my dad and grandparents seemed to respect him. But, I personally, saw him as dull and boring… just a talking head, and not a terribly interesting one at that. A child’s point of view, surely.
I didn’t know of any liberal commentators. No doubt there were some, but they didn’t seem to find their way into the channels I knew. I would see stories about radicals from time to time, but the 1960s were more and more a distant memory by the time I came along. Jimmy Carter, a devout Christian man, was our liberal by then, and he lost his second election in such a grand and humiliating way. Reagan, the new conservative, was flashy. But, even then I could not have articulated their differences in categories like liberal or conservative as a child. I just didn’t know the difference.
Then came CNN.
As I Became a Young Man
As I understood it at the time, CNN’s niche was their 24/7 broadcasting coverage. If it was happening and noteworthy at all, CNN was there and so were you, if you had access. The network news organizations had to break in on Little House On The Prairie or Chips and Happy Days if you were going to be informed like that. And suddenly news became a junkie thing.
I was too young to be such a junkie, but I recognized in a handful of family members that they were glued to their CNN every boring day, but were ready to consume the first minute anything happened.
This really came home to roost when it became known that President Bush and his top military commanders were getting their intel faster through CNN than through military channels during the first Gulf War. That CNN niche had ramifications that went into new categories.
But, I would be naïve not to give token mention to Rush Limbaugh at this point. I never heard of him until he got his TV program, and even then I didn’t watch him a lot. But I could plainly see this was not my grandpa’s conservative news commentator. This opinionater took a page from the 1960s radicals and added insult and injury, even making it entertaining, to his conservative idealist audience. There was a pendulum swing beneath the surface there, and no longer was it liberals and radicals who burned bras and draft cards showing disrespect for their political opposition, it was the cutting wit of the talking head.
Move over Buckley, your stuffy style is so… so… yesterday.
I should say that around this time, I watched the old Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman movie (it was old by that time too) All The President’s Men. The Watergate story had all unfolded when I was very young and had no understanding. I do recall that word “Watergate” being bounced around from my earliest memories, but watching this movie gave me a context – AND opened up a category in my mind for how the media impacts politics. Of course, in that movie, the reporters are heroes uncovering the lies of big government and exposing crooked politicians to the light of day. (Ironic how the reporters, being liberal in that instance, exposed lying big government, but hey, that goes more to MY WAY of thinking than any talking points published anywhere I know of today.)
Limbaugh did not remain on TV for long. But in another ten or fifteen years, we would have Fox News to shore up his absence. I didn’t follow Limbaugh that closely, but I am sure that within a year or two, he was not there. However, I moved to Arizona in my mid twenties and began listing to talk radio where I found, not only Rush but, a whole lot of conservative political talk. I became profoundly influenced. Even now, I appreciate the sense of personal responsibility I learned from those conservatives, but I also learned that being mean, irreverent, proud, and loud were the new conservatism. One of my favorite commentators was Ken Hamblin, the Black Avenger, and every day that some death row criminal was executed anywhere in America, Hamblin would play a round of Happy Trails on his radio show as a contemptuous send off. As a Jesus guy, that just didn’t quite sit well with me. That, and a number of other things which eventually I worked my way through over the course of about five years.
When I Became a Real Grown Up
It was during the 1990s that I began to see the overt political slant in the news. The conservative radio people especially wanted to call it out in the mainstream media (network TV news among these). I didn’t see the overt egregiousness in the NBC, ABC, and CBS news programs that these talkers were worried about, but I could see what appeared to me to be a left-of-center commitment there – sorta. Certainly, it was clear to me that the conservatives were hell bent on setting themselves apart as conservative and seemed a bit over eager to proclaim that the mainstream was liberal. To hear the conservatives to then claim their own news presentations and opinionating as “fair and balanced” seemed farcical. They were being BOTH “fair and balanced” AND conservative, and their brand of conservative was hostile and not really mine.
I could plainly see journalists like Geraldo Rivera had their agendas to promote. I could even sense, sorta, that programs like 20/20 tended to look and feel like in-depth news reporting, but so often the content was more sensational than meaningfully substantive. But I never sensed that the mainstream news outlets were so egregiously liberal or corrupt as to give a pass to liberal crimes. Perhaps a bit slow to shine the light in a few dark corners, but not outright dishonest.
A Crotchety Old Man Watching The News
But then in the last two decades, I began to sense all but the anchor programs in nightly world news among the networks were becoming eroded with “infotainment.” I always liked getting up in the morning to catch either The Today Show or Good Morning America. The first fifteen minutes offered the headlines of the day, and at least that seemed pretty straightforward. But here that was changing, and in my estimation, NBC was the worst of it. I tuned in at Halloween time to see Matt Lauer and friends dressed up in holiday costumes, playing practical jokes and gags, and wasting more and more news time on their chit chat and banter.
The first time I ever heard the term “fake news,” that is what I thought it was referring to.
But it wasn’t long after that when I discovered Jon Stewart and The Daily Show on Comedy Central. I couldn’t believe my ears! This man was definitely giving us his liberal persuasion, but he was a comedian doing his funny act. Problem was… his act was to bring us the news with insightful analysis, and he, for whatever reasons, decided to hold himself to industry standards.
Sure his act was irreverent and designed to impact the news with humor, but he was providing very powerful insights and digging into stories with professional skill. I found a number of “issues” Stewart champions are not mine. I see (and saw then) myself as a conservative and could plainly see where he was not. He in no way hid this stuff. But, he was helping me to see and understand the complexities of a number of stories like I never had before. And he did so with honesty and integrity – even retracting stories when he was proven wrong!
All that from a comedy act!
Suddenly, I thought I had a new definition of “fake news,” and an admiration for it too.
Fact of the matter is: I didn’t really know what “fake news” referred to in reality. I was hearing the term kicked around, and I was having sympathy with it, but after President Trump was elected, I finally decided I was using it differently and thinking about it differently. I have come to realize that the internet is one of (if not the) major source(s) of “fake news.” You really cannot trust blogs and such as news sources. I don’t pretend to be a news source, and in completely invite all readers to challenge me and my opinions. I invite you to verify any and everything I offer here. Yet, I in no way pretend to bring you the news either – except maybe The Good News.
Trust me or not, that is MY life with “fake news.”