A former journalist, Yossi Halevi, recently said that, during his career, the overriding objective of journalism has shifted from truth to justice. The difference being that truth is supposed to be objective while justice, specifically social justice, is most decidedly subjective.
Moreover, one’s stand on “justice” depends on where one sits. If I am an anti-vaxxer, then justice is that the hospital I am admitted to spends hundreds of thousands of dollars to save my life. If you are me, anti-vaxxers should gain admission for COVID-related issues if and only if there are no other patients competing for those beds. Call me callous and cruel, but to me, that is justice.
My personal take on justice (and yours as well) is relatively unimportant. But when the entire fourth estate swings to subjective reporting, tailoring reality to fit their political agenda, it becomes dangerous. This is not new. Henry Ford published The Dearborn Independent, an antisemitic rag focused on blaming Jews for all the problems in the world. At one time The Independent had the second largest circulation of any newspaper in the United States. William Randolph Hearst’s and Joseph Pulitzer’s newspapers led the charge in exhorting America to go to war with Spain over the alleged sinking of the USS Maine. Robert “Colonel” McCormick, owner and publisher of the Chicago Tribunewas an America First believer who actively campaigned for isolationism and attacked FDR for even considering entering WWII. Time Magazine said of McCormick, “the Tribune has been made into a worldwide symbol of reaction, isolation, and prejudice by a man capable of real hate.”
What is new is television, social media, and a 24-hour news cycle and political “commentary” as entertainment cycle (politainment??) which spew opinion as facts; skew or omit information that does not fit the narrative; and promote downright misrepresentation and misinformation. And all of this is tolerated as a First Amendment right. Exacerbating the impact of these technological changes was the 1987 elimination of the “fairness doctrine,” an FCC policy that required broadcasters to give equal time to differing viewpoints on a political issue. Coupled with the growth of the internet, an explosion of quasi-news institutions like Fox News, MSNBC, The Grunge Report, OAN, The Huffington Post, and the like, not to mention the impact of such “journalists” as Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, Ed Shultz, and Alex Jones, and voila – here we are. Long gone are the days of the “trusted news source” and “Uncle Walter” Cronkite. Today’s “news” is anything but ‘fair and balanced.’
I submit we are not better off with social media and the lack of the fairness doctrine. Unlike print journalism, television, radio, and the internet all use public goods to disseminate their deeply unbalanced material. The American people deserve better.
All of this – the misinformation, the lack of balance, the endless echo-chamber of social media – make us less intelligent, less able to think critically, and less willing and able to have civil discussions about our differences. How else did a public health calamity become a political issue? That did not happen with the smallpox or polio vaccines, or vaccines protecting us against mumps, whooping cough, measles. The only two movements against vaccination have been political – the first by opponents of the HPV vaccine who believe that protection against a sexually transmitted disease promotes sexual activity and now, resistance to COVID vaccinations (and other methods of mitigation) by those who refuse to believe scientific facts, preferring to follow vacuous political leaders. Anti-vaxxers make it clear to the rest of us that our lives and well-being are worth less than their political views and their twisted concept of “freedom.”
I wonder what percentage of current living anti-vaxxers and anti-mask advocates have been vaccinated for polio (or any of the others mentioned above). Or wear a seat belt, or carry a driver’s license, or obtain a building permit, or license their dog or bicycle? All of the above “restrictions on freedom” are just as onerous as COVID vaccinations and mask mandates. Seriously – when was the last time you heard about a protest against drunk driving laws?
I am reminded of the stupidity surrounding motorcycle helmet laws, fought over the same nonsensical concept of “freedom.” Successful in defeating helmets laws in many states, the anti-helmet crowd, when injured and uninsured, still expects the rest of us to bear the cost of their medical treatment . I was in the retail motorcycle business for a few years. Do you know what we called motorcycle riders without helmets? Organ donors.
Prohibitionist orators had a favorite adage about individual freedom, repeated in 1887 by Temperance lecturer Major Camp: “I have no right to throw my arms out in a crowd, for I might hit somebody on the nose. My right stops where his nose begins. I have no right to drink if my drinking injures others.”
Camp and his Temperance colleagues were and still are right. In essence, you have no right to burden me with the cost of your bad decisions nor put my health or well-being in danger by your lack of action.
As a nation, we have a considerable minority that have either forgotten or dismissed this. The reality that opinion has become “fact” is ultimately quite dangerous as is the belief that my “independence” has no responsibility to the common good.
We are not better off. And that, my friends, is a tragedy.
Which brings us back to Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Truth and justice are different and both important. Justice is a core value of most, if not all religions*. In all of these religions, justice is relational. It is about insuring societal calm amongst groups and individuals. It is about fairness and the Golden Rule. Truth must be a key element of democracy if it is to continue. Pandering to falsehoods leads to authoritarianism and ultimately, chaos. Truth is absolute. Truth is about the facts and while “everyone is entitled to their own opinion; they are not entitled to their own facts.”**
These definitions are not currently “The American Way.” Perhaps that is why the Superman comics have changed the expression to Truth, Justice, and a Better Tomorrow. From their lips to God’s ears.
* Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you. Deuteronomy 16:20
* He will proclaim justice to the nations. A battered reed he will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out, until He leads justice to victory. Mathew 12:18
* Stand up firmly for justice, as a witness to God, even as against yourselves or your parents or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor. Surah 4:135
* Tolerating injustice is a bigger crime than doing injustice. Bhagavad-Gita
** Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former US Senator