You could call it a moment of truth, except that what actually came out of that moment was a realization of how little truth now matters.
This is back in 2010, after I recounted in this space an astonishing feat of World War I heroism – a small African-American soldier named Henry Johnson, wounded 21 times, single-handedly fighting off a company of Germans. In response, a guy named Ken shot off an angry email calling the story “PC bull.”
Judi, my assistant, sent Ken documentation. I wrote a follow-up column listing history books and contemporaneous news sources that verified the event. Ken was unmoved.
What struck me wasn’t so much Ken’s ignorance. Rather, it was how impervious his ignorance was to corrective fact. That was when I first fully understood that we had entered a new era wherein facts – those things that once settled arguments conclusively – carried all the weight of goose down. These days, you may prove your point to a fare-thee-well, use The New York Times, a study from Harvard, federal statistics, but the skeptical reader will still brush it all aside like a blurry Polaroid of Bigfoot.
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So PolitiFact, Facebook, McClatchy and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University have their work cut out for them. You see, those institutions have launched projects to improve media credibility.
The fact-checkers at PolitiFact have been touring deep red areas like Mobile, Alabama, and Charleston, West Virginia, hosting forums to engage with Donald Trump voters who, by definition, distrust media fact-checking.
Meantime, the social media giant, the newspaper conglomerate – which owns my employer, The Miami Herald – and the J-school are partnering in the Facebook Journalism Project. Its aim, according to an ASU statement, is to “help newsrooms work with their communities to develop innovations that increase transparency, engagement, mutual understanding and respect.”
I wish them Godspeed. But both projects, I think, proceed from an assumption that truth is something all of us value. And I’m not convinced all of us do.
It’s not just Ken who makes me doubt. It’s also Fox “News” and talk radio. It’s Donald Trump’s lies, his war on journalism and people’s tolerance for both. And it’s studies dating to the 1970s, when researchers at Stanford first documented a counterintuitive phenomenon. Namely, that people tend not to change their minds when facts prove them wrong. Instead, they double down on the false belief.
So we are fighting human nature here. Worse, it is human nature exacerbated by extreme partisanship, fear-mongering pundits, a lying president and a social media complex so vast and varied that even the most bizarre belief can find validation there.
Michelle Obama is a transvestite? Sure.
The military plans to conquer Texas? Okey-dokey.
Vaccines cause autism? Well, all righty, then.
Hillary Clinton is running a child molestation ring? OK. Out of a pizza joint? Why not?
That’s just a sampling of the crazy that has gained purchase in American minds. So while it’s fine to engage today’s news consumers, I think our long-term salvation lies in their kids, in teaching them the lost art of critical thinking. That should be a priority in our schools. Because the status quo – facts-free ignorance – is unsustainable.
Yes, there is always room for improvement in how news media do their jobs. But it is important to understand that the disconnect media face does not stem from failure to report the facts.
Rather, it stems from some people’s failure to want them.
Leonard Pitts Jr., is a columnist for the Miami Herald: firstname.lastname@example.org.