“To assert no falsehood, and hide no truth,” was the motto of many journalists and papers when modern journalism was first setting up. The line is paraphrased from Cicero, though I am copying from the Mercurius Caledonius of Edinburgh, launched in 1661. Not untypically, this journal was conducted by a comic playwright — the errant son of a pillar of the establishment. He was rising out of the broadside tradition, in which irreverence was normal.
Journalists, playwrights, satirists, and poets are often not respectable people. But they are meant to compensate by comparative freedom from hypocrisy. And this motto is a good one, standing on two feet; for to conceal truth is often worse than to supply facts that are maimed.
Nothing is new under the sun, not even decay, but the slide of mainstream journalism — not merely into partisanship, but into the assertion of falsehoods and the hiding of truth — has become a public issue. Polls show declining public trust: Journalists often rank below politicians. More to the point, I have myself noticed the collapse of standards from within the trade, over several decades.
One way to put this would be: “There are no broadsheets any more, only tabloids.” News media have become indistinguishable from the media of mass entertainment, reflecting a larger collapse of moral and educational standards. Reporters have become scriptwriters; editors have become impresarios; and, along with the other aspirations of Hollywood, has come the pretension to prophetic authority. The role of the journalist has incrementally changed from “seeking the truth” to “shaping perceptions.”
This is itself a very grand statement, and rather than defend it at book length, let me refer only to a single incident that tells the whole story. It was a journalistic cover-up that became known despite best efforts. The reason given for the concealment (“preserving the victim’s privacy”) was itself a half-truth at best. An attempt was made to suppress news of what happened to Lara Logan, because it did not fit — radically did not fit — with the “narrative” journalists were peddling from the streets of Cairo.
This CBS reporter — a hardened pro with battleground experience in Afghanistan and elsewhere — had been reporting the celebration in Tahrir Square after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak. As we now know, she was spontaneously attacked by dozens of men, who separated her from her crew and security. They sexually assaulted her — repeatedly, in open view — while shouting, “Jew! Jew!”
She was then flown back to a hospital in the United States, without any report to the Egyptian police or any treatment in an Egyptian hospital — and this because CBS staff realized she would be arrested and again assaulted if they sought local assistance.
At this point, let me refer the reader to an article by Caroline Glick, a truth-seeking journalist I much admire, writing in the Jerusalem Post. Glick spells out the implications of this story: how it gives the lie to all the Western media reporting on the uprising in Egypt — and, by extension, far beyond.
I am not satisfied, however, with her assertion that “identity politics” is what drives reporters and editors to systematically misrepresent the truth before their eyes. For I think even Glick stops short of reckoning with the profound moral inversion that is revealed.
From my own experience in the field, I would insist that individual journalists are seldom in any doubt about how things really are in places like Gaza, the West Bank, or Cairo. They must be, in order to survive in such places when things get hot. Yet on the few occasions when I have challenged a brother journalist directly on why he is filing material he knows to be comprehensively false or misleading, I have triggered nothing better than a little avalanche of leftist bile.
It has been my further bleak observation that, when talking only among colleagues, the same journalists may display real contempt for Palestinians, or native Egyptians, or Arabs of any sort. Yet even privately, they remain “pro-Arab” in an abstract way.
The truth is darker than this. Arabs are unconsciously treated as dogs that cannot be held responsible for their behavior. By contrast, Israelis are condemned as if they were fully human. When, for instance, a Palestinian terrorist blows up a Jerusalem pizzeria, the Israeli victims are implicitly reproached. The judgment is: “You kicked him, you idiot; what did you expect him to do?”
The Arabs, for their part, often feel a reciprocal contempt for Western journalists, even while using them for their own purposes. Paradoxically, they may show respect to a Westerner who argues frankly with them, from a pro-Western position, and who does not try to humor them.
To my mind, “identity politics” is a lame phrase, much as “political correctness.” It does no justice to the scale of the evil. These are glib terms to describe monstrous and consequential lies — lies that contribute to misunderstandings that end in slaughter.
Moreover, “identity politics” is just a passing fad. The zeitgeist (my expression for the operation of the demonic in public life) casually embraces and discards ideologies. I have known people continuously since the early 1970s whose political views have metamorphosed at least once in each decade, yet who, in any choice between two courses, come down consistently on whichever side offers the greater evil.
It will be nuclear winter one day, global warming another; class warfare one day, race the next; it will be “freedom” when the agenda is pornography, but “order” when it is political or religious free speech; feminism against the U.S. military, but not against the Taliban; “gay rights” one moment, “perverted priests” another . . . I could go on and on. There is no consistent ideology, there are no consistent principles, and when challenged to reconcile contradictions, their argument quickly reduces to: “Those who oppose us must be silenced because they are fascists, racists, sexists, Islamophobes” — whatever.
The exception was 9/11. For several days afterward, and up to three months in a few cases, even leftwing journalists were siding with President George Bush against Osama bin Laden — perhaps from shock at the attacks on New York and Washington, which had removed their own sense of physical safety. But by Christmas of 2001, they had all returned to form. “Amerika” was once again the enemy, and any enemy of “Amerika” deserved to be excused.
This isn’t rational error. It isn’t ideology, either. Instead, it is something the Catholic Church should know all about: a condition that is spiritual and not material. It is something that is front and center throughout the Gospels. Christ is not preaching “toleration” of evils; He is instead telling us how to defeat them. And our common enemy is presented plainly as the devil. Even such advice as “turn the other cheek” is offered as a way to defeat evil.
The problem is not with journalists, per se, but with the people who have come to dominate the trade, for whom Christian teaching has turned upside down. People who do not believe in “demons.” People who think they have all the answers. People who have said in their hearts, “There is no God.”