Because we cannot trust the media

The proposition that the entire media constitutes a coordinated single cabal of misinformation is apt to be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. However, the usual epistemic argument against conspiracy theories, that by casting all sources of information into doubt they render themselves unfalsifiable, does not apply. We do have independent sources of information, of at least two types. We each have local information, unmediated by the mass media, about our own neighborhood and city, our own business or employing company, and any groups to which we may belong that espouse non-mainstream views (e.g. a church or political group). Thus, we can know, when an incident in our locale gains national attention, that the national media has distorted the story (suppressing details here, emphasizing irrelevancies there) to fit it into one of their standard templates (e.g. “police and schools pick on blacks for no reason”). We can know for certain that when they report on our own credal minority group, not only is the reporting unremittingly hostile, but it fails even to accurately state what our group’s beliefs and their reasons are. Secondly, we each have knowledge that, while not local in the above sense, is not widely accessible. That is, we each have expertise, e.g. extensive knowledge of a natural science or a foreign culture, that takes time and effort to acquire and is thus not widely shared. We each find that when the news media reports on a topic in our own area of expertise, they are confused and inept. Finally, while it is not knowledge per se, we each have logical and mathematical reasoning skills and can notice when the media narrative doesn’t even make sense. For example, the supposed actions of the supposed villains don’t match their supposed motives, or they seem to have no motive at all.

We each have independent sources of information to check that the media is dishonest and unreliable, but your evidences will not be the same as mine. The media does have a monopoly on global, accessible information. Since your proof will be different than mine, I will just assume that, like me, you have already come to this conclusion yourself. Let us then examine the consequences of that conclusion.

First, and most obviously, we would be fools to believe the media when they make the same accusations against others that they do against us. For example, they tell us that Muslims cruelly oppress their women, but they say exactly the same thing about Christians. Perhaps they’re actually telling the truth about Muslims, but the word of the media does not even rise to the level of evidence for this belief. The caricature of “ignorant racists” probably fits lower-class whites in other cities as poorly as it does those in our own. While we reactionaries know that the media hates us, and it may sound to us preposterous to hear Leftists say that it hates them, it’s not unlikely that they are right. The media hates anyone who doubts the establishment creed which we call “Leftism” and they call “neoliberalism”. We should give no credence whatsoever to media accusations that some foreign nation is committing “human rights violations”; they say the same of us for using biologically-determined pronouns. We must be especially careful to extend this skepticism when the media does a “hit” on a group with which we are not inclined to sympathize.

I would not be surprised to learn that the media often lies on matters of basic fact, but their mendacity manifests most clearly in the moralistic context in which journalists embed all their reporting. One notices that there are historical events, especially the American War Between the States and World War II, that are always described in flagrantly propagandistic ways, where even neutrality is considered offensive. Clearly these events touch on the legitimating mythology of the order the media defends, and we should be especially skeptical where their moralizing framework is most prominent.

All of this is negative. Can we lay out a positive program for how to circumvent the media to get a reliable view of the world?

Suggestion 1: “We know about the media’s bias, so we can correct for it.” For example, if one is convinced that the media has a Leftist bias, one could assume that Right-aligned groups are somewhat more sympathetic, Left-aligned groups somewhat less sympathetic than reported. Or one can resolve only to trust the media on uncontroversial matters. This is unreliable. Reporters get to cherry pick what to report, so it’s likely they’ll find some genuinely unsympathetic members of groups they dislike. Also, they sometimes do unfairly vilify Leftists (because too moderate, wrong flavor, or personal competitor). Finally, one’s sense of what is controversial is liable to itself be overly influenced by the media’s present dictates or past victories.

Suggestion 2: “We need to replace the current corrupt, mendacious news media with a more trustworthy alternative.” Bad idea, Boromir. Media power is evil in itself, and whatever media system gains hegemony will be the agent of Leftist totalitarianism. There can never be a good cadre of journalists. Making people focus on the ephemeral rather than the permanent, the striking anecdote rather than the generality, is what they do. Sniffing out corruption in society’s mediating bodies, crying for accountability to local authorities, discrediting and destroying all organic society, exalting an all-powerful central authority ruling over a social desert, is what they do. Hunting down and vilifying dissidents is what they do. Wanting a newspaper you can trust is like wanting a political party you can trust. For a nonliberal there can be no such thing, because newspapers and parties lead of their nature to a certain type of polity.

Suggestion 3: “Put in the effort to become an expert on whatever you would wish to have an opinion on. Pick up whatever skills you need. Consult all the primary sources and academic publications; travel to location and analyze raw data if possible. That is, extend your mastery of ‘inaccessible’ (by which I really meant, ‘accessible only with difficulty’) information.” This can indeed be valuable, but remember that your time and energy are limited. In practice, you will have to pick only a few things to become an expert on. (The exact number will depend on your intelligence and will. I have a very limited intelligence and often feel exhausted by my existing duties, so I feel this constraint acutely.)

Suggestion 4–prompted by the contemplation of suggestion 3 and resignation to its impracticality: epistemic humility. This is a great treasure, both for intellectual and spiritual growth. The bare realization that acquiring knowledge, having a worthwhile opinion on any matter, is hard. It’s not enough to acknowledge this in words; the full realization comes from two experiences. First, the struggle to master a genuine discipline–Latin, Newtonian physics, geography, computer programming, whatever. Second, the failure to find a shortcut–the unreliability of news and popular exposition, the tendency of these shortcuts to degenerate into gossip over personalities or unthinking partisanship. Why should I think that I can understand what’s going on in, say, France right now if I won’t first make a study of French history and culture and then consult the statements of both sides of whatever the French happen to be currently arguing about? (Even this is optimistic; prior generations would have insisted that I start by learning French.) One might have thought that, while such expertise is helpful, I can have the fruit of it secondhand by reading a newspaper with a French correspondent who is (or, more likely, consults with) experts on France. But it turns out that this only makes me a sucker ripe for manipulation. Shall I shop experts to see whom I should trust? But how can I judge that without becoming an expert myself, so that this is no shortcut at all?

It seems that knowledge does not come cheap. The idea was that experts would descend into the baffling depths of their expertise but then re-emerge with discoveries and conclusions which could be shared and properly understood by the rest of us, even if we could not reproduce the reasoning that supports these conclusions. It was a nice idea, division of labor in the intellectual sphere. Often enough, though, it turns out that experts are like mystics; they can share with us, the vulgar masses, only symbols of what they have learned, the reality of which is inaccessible to us until we follow the mystic’s own path and discipline. I don’t mean to discourage anyone; these symbols can be hints and glimpses of real truths. Only where we have submitted to the requisite intellectual discipline, though, can we grasp these truths directly in themselves.

Luckily, I don’t need to get to the bottom of whatever is agitating the French during this news cycle. I can afford to be agnostic on a great many things. This stuff is seldom relevant to my relationship with God or my duties to my family and students.

8 thoughts on “Because we cannot trust the media

  1. The last line says it all. I have found that the less news I follow, the better my prayer life becomes, and the happier I am. And interestingly, for the news stories I do hear about (from friends and so on), I tend to have an easier time thinking clearly.

    In particular, since I was doing a media-fast at the time the corona-panic first hit, I wasn’t whipped up into fear of it. How different it might have been if my first exposure to the news had not been over a cup of tea with a coworker but through a slick, perfectly-engineered bit of fear propaganda?

  2. There isn’t anything wrong with partisanship in principle – so long as one of the sides really is worth supporting.

    But apart from the side of God, divine creation and Jesus Christ – which does not map sufficiently onto any worldly institution to be conflated with its activities – there is no side worth being partisan for.

    So we are back at individual discernment…

    When I wrote Not Even Trying, I was resistant to viewing the mass media as a directed-conspiracy – and tried to explain its coherent evil in systems terms. Events since have compelled me to change my mind – since early 2020 there very obviously IS central coordination being applied to the Big news stories upon which world strategy depends. This is superficially evident by the instant usage of new vocabulary and phrases, and deeply evident in the emergence of a firm guiding hand on the tiller when events seem to contradict the goal.

  3. The moral philosophers tell us that “ought” implies “can.” If I cannot form a veracious understanding of the world, I am not, therefore, obliged to form a veracious understanding of the world. In other words, the mendacity of the media absolves me of my epistemic duty and frees me to believe whatever I please. Many people will use their epistemic liberty to retreat into a mix of skepticism and quietism, which seems to be your proposal, but I wonder if we should not instead believe anything that is conducive to our flourishing. Such a belief system would include some facts about how the physical world works, since filling my car’s gas tank with water is not conducive to my flourishing, but the test of all other opinions–historical, political, religious–would be, “is it good for me?” This is the attitude implicit in what is now called “my truth,” Now it seems to me that a zealot fired up with “his truth” will beat a skeptical quietist every time, so poetic zealotry is the way to go.

  4. I always enjoy your posts on the media.

    One might have thought that, while such expertise is helpful, I can have the fruit of it secondhand by reading a newspaper with a French correspondent who is (or, more likely, consults with) experts on France. But it turns out that this only makes me a sucker ripe for manipulation. Shall I shop experts to see whom I should trust? But how can I judge that without becoming an expert myself, so that this is no shortcut at all?

    I think this passage could use some elaboration: we all have to depend on other authorities (‘experts’) for a great deal (a majority?) of what we believe, so what distinguishes trusting some sorts of authorities (e.g., scientific authorities) versus trusting newspapermen? Is it because newspapermen are not, in actuality, experts? (I think you had a post on this feature of the media a while back). Or is it because the media have no intrinsic connection to the common good and therefore no responsibility for the common good? Something else?

    • In the above passage, the issue is not trusting experts (which is indeed inescapable) but in understanding them. This is also an issue for laymen going to a popular talk by a scientist who, let us say, is a reliable source on his lecture topic. He will have to simplify and use analogies. Admittedly, there will be the advantage that he won’t garble the analogies or stretch them beyond their range of validity, as journalists usually do.

  5. Pingback: The Day of the Raspberry and the Age of Mendacity – The Orthosphere

  6. “Suggestion 2: “We need to replace the current corrupt, mendacious news media with a more trustworthy alternative.” Bad idea, Boromir. Media power is evil in itself”.

    This is not true. The media, as a means to disseminate information and educate is good in itself. The problem is what is being disseminated as education or information.

    The problem is what the media are spreading, but that issue must be seen from a different perspective: the sinfulness in our society.

    Worldwide speaking, the amount of mortal sins is at an all time high. In many countries of the west, the amount of people who believe in God is less than 50 percent (I live in Brussels, Belgium, and in this country I believe this percentage to be accurate). From the percentage of believers in any country, only a minor proportion is a practicing catholic; and by “practicing catholic” I mean a person who goes to mass on days of obligation, goes to confession regularly, receives communion, and prays daily. Outside this minority of practicing catholics, it is not exaggerated to speculate that the rest of the population is living in mortal sin (it may be argued that some of these people are non-practicing catholics who act out of ignorance, but the objective mortal sin is still there, regardless of the degree of accountability for the sin of unbelief). On top of this, we need to add the sins that we practicing catholics commit on a regular basis and do not confess due to ignorance.

    We know that some of the consequences of mortal sin are:
    – darkening of the intellect
    – inclination to evil (malice)
    – weakening of the will

    This means that the group of non-practicing catholics (a significant proportion of our society) is getting their intellects darkened, their will more and more inclined to do evil, and their fortitude needed to do good reduced. When we consider that part of this group are working in the media (as reporters, presenters, editors, writers, ecc) we can see more clearly what is going on.

    While there are some media agencies that are intentionally following an established agenda with evil means, other media agencies are simply spreading errors and falsity as a direct consequence of the sinfulness of their employees. If on top of that you add the fact that the audience is composed by a majority of people in mortal sin, then it is easier to understand why the information/education we receive is rife with lies and errors.

    Maybe the best (if not the only) antidote to this is what the King of ninive did when he heard the words of prophet Jonah, and/or the daily recitation of the Rosary.

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