Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
∼ T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock
A little over a decade ago, I sat behind a one-way mirror in a nondescript office building outside Denver, watching a focus group go through the motions with a skilled moderator. The session started off with the usual general questions before focusing on the issue at hand. One of the typical icebreaker questions was asked: “Where do you get your news?”
As someone who grew up loving newspapers and even worked as a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist for several years after college, I was more than a little put off by some of the comments. One man got his news from the home page of Yahoo.com; another, a professional driver, got his from talk radio.
Keep in mind this was the early 2000s, before we had social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or mobile technology like tablets and smartphones. Google itself was relatively new, and rising in stature. One recent study from the Pew Research Center found that only 20 percent of the population gets its news from newspapers on a regular basis—and it was a demographic skewed older—no surprise here—with only 5 percent of those ages 18-29 often getting news from a print newspaper.
To be sure, the shift from gravitas to levitas has been working its way into the news media for decades, long before the Internet and even before television journalism became common. In his 1938 autobiography, British historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood called the Daily Mail “the first English newspaper for which the word ‘news’ lost its old meaning of facts which a reader ought to know if he was to vote intelligently, and acquired the new meaning of facts, or fictions, which it might amuse him to read.”
One need only to go to www.dailymail.co.uk to see how the newspaper has evolved since Collingwood published this observation—and evidently it has been a success, at one point besting The New York Times as the world’s most popular online newspaper.
Taking it all a step further, one could even argue that the seriousness and alleged objectivity of The New York Times or Washington Post is itself only a passing fad in news media, one that itself is now dying away as people seek more opinions (and amusement) with their facts.
Historically, in fact, many newspapers were decidedly biased in one direction or another, as Fox News is now accused of being. Many were party organs at one point, with Democrat or Republican as part of their names. In fact, going to www.whig.com takes you to the Quincy, Ill., Herald-Whig, born of a newspaper merger of the Herald and the Whig—which itself began publication in 1838, when the political organization that preceded the Republican Party was in its heyday.
Another book comes to mind as we see how the media have devolved further, from the news providing stories that merely amuse to something far more … insidious.
In his new bestselling autobiographical book Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance talks about the problem of media distrust among the white working class, the sort of people who, like the driver mentioned above, tend to get their news and opinions from talk radio—and what it ultimately means.
“With little trust in the press, there’s no check on the internet conspiracy theories that rule the digital world,” Vance writes. “Everything the media tells us is a lie. Many in the white working class believe the worst about their society. This isn’t some libertarian mistrust of government policy, which is healthy in any democracy. This is deep skepticism of the very institutions of our society. And it’s becoming more and more mainstream.”
Amid this distrust, many people have even turned to alternate sources of media that can be far more dangerous than talk radio or Yahoo.com, the scores of websites and social media channels that purvey lies, rumors and innuendo.
With social media and a heightened sense of anger, one can easily find examples of people whose lives are all the more easily ruined with postings (fact or fictional) on the Internet.
One of my more current occupations has been helping people and organizations find their way in the minefields of Facebook and Twitter. When I give presentations, I reflect on another quotation, attributed in various forms at different times to Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and others: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its shoes on.”
The fact is, we lost sight a long time ago of the sin of detraction—revealing another person’s faults without sufficient reason. “We’re not lying,” we tell ourselves; “it’s in the public record. It’s justified.” I know many people who were victims of this sort of social media shaming, and the refrain that comes to mind is, there but for the grace of God go the rest of us. With the new media taking a place of prominence this election cycle, it’s not just detraction—it’s calumny, libel, and slander.
It’s become increasingly clear, as everyone becomes their own journalist with free and easy tools, and as the most angry, contentious, and mean-spirited presidential race nears a climax, we need to pray for wisdom and knowledge, rather than simply “click here” for more information.
Editor’s note: Above is a picture of Mark Twain reading his newspaper.