Has America become home to a post-truth culture? I ran into that phrase--"post-truth culture"--casually applied to the United States, in something I was reading, and it brought me up short. Have things really gotten that bad, I asked myself, or was the writer only saying something attention-grabbing for effect?
Assuming a bit of both, I nevertheless knew immediately what he meant, and that in itself tends to suggest that there's a real problem here. A post-truth culture is first cousin to fake news, and everyone has heard of that thanks to President Trump, whose critics say he's no mean practitioner in this line himself.
The Vatican presumably was not trying to grab attention recently but only alluding to a widely recognized problem in setting the theme for next year's World Communications Day: "The Truth Will Set You Free--Fake News and Journalism for Peace." A statement by Pope Francis is expected in January, with the "day" itself to be observed many places next May.
In a brief explanation accompanying the announcement, the Vatican's Secretariat for Communication said the aim was to promote reflection on what it called "the causes, logic, and consequences of misinformation in the media."
Herewith a few unsolicited thoughts about that from an American perspective.
First of all, here's hoping the Pope doesn't fall into the trap of lambasting mainstream media. Having spent many years working in and around the news business, I know that serious journalists aren't really the problem.
Yes, news people do make mistakes, but knowingly passing off fiction as fact isn't one of them. Honorable journalists (there are plenty) work hard to get facts straight, and when they do get something wrong, it's usually due to human error or the difficulty of covering complex stories under the twin pressures of competition and time.
That said, though, the unconscious ideological bias of journalists is a real problem, visible in much of the coverage, both pro and con, of President Trump. The best defense against it for readers and viewers and listeners lies in constant self-examination and self-criticism--of media by media--although the voluntary creation of independent evaluation boards to review and critique journalists' performance might also help.
But it's essential to realize that the heart of the problem of fake news (and the post-truth culture, if there really is one) doesn't reside in the traditional media but in the proliferation of ideologically polarized websites and social media in recent years. If you want to view something with alarm, start here.
And here, one might add, is where "peace" in the Communications Day theme becomes relevant. The polarization in this sector of the media world--the sector inhabited by countless blogs and Twitter and the like--is now visible in the demonizing of persons and the distorting of issues, the projection of a black-and-white world where it's forever "us" (good guys) vs. "them" (bad guys constantly trying to catch us with our guard down), and the routine practice of rumor-mongering and defamation. To dignify this by calling it fake "news" would be to give it more credence than it deserves.
Short of state censorship, which would be a pseudo-remedy worse than the disease itself, the solution evidently resides in the wisdom of "Caveat emptor"--let the buyer beware. News consumers must be judicious in their selection of information sources and should make a habit of consulting multiple ones of varied ideological hues. Hard work, yes, but this is what getting to the truth requires in a post-truth world.
- Russell Shaw is the author of more than twenty books. He is a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and served as communications director for the U.S. Bishops.