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Francis, fake news, and “snake-tactics”

Fake news is fake. Bad press may be the result of very sound journalism. The problem is that the standard proposed by Pope Francis cannot but tend to favor the powerful over and against the people.

Pope Francis smiles as he leads his general audience Jan. 24 in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (CNS/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

Yesterday, January 24th, was the 52nd World Day for Social Communications. Pope Francis has chosen to mark the recurrence with a Message, in which he expounds on “fake news and journalism for peace” under the guidance of the words of Our Lord as recorded in the Holy Gospel according to St. John: “The truth will set you free.” The Holy Father’s Message deserves careful attention.

Francis often quotes Scripture antiphonally. There is evidence that suggests this is one of those cases. “You shall know the truth,” are the words Our Lord says right before he says, “the truth will set you free.” In the Message, the Holy Father asks how we are to discern the truth in a climate of intolerance and hypersensitivity, which flourish in environs of “instantaneous emotions like anxiety, contempt, anger and frustration.” He is right to pose the question, and insightful in framing it as he does.

Though anxiety is a psychological condition as much as an emotion, and although contempt, anger, and frustration may all arise over time, behind fair judgment and in response to the deleterious effects of abuse; it is nevertheless true that we too often adopt an anxious disposition, a posture of contempt, a countenance of anger, and a general willingness to be almost instantly frustrated, as our defaults in public discourse.

We must not fail to resist temptation to these attitudes, as they cannot fail to poison our counsels.

Pope Francis goes on to say, “We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.” Can we, though? One may as well provoke a quarrel with a truth as with a falsehood, or force an issue, or push an interlocutor to resign. All these speak to the use one makes of truth, not to the stuff of which one makes use in speaking it. The devil does quote Scripture: sometimes the Emperor has no clothes; Scarlett is never going to be an 18½ again.

Our Lord said things about His coming: that it was not to bring not peace, but division; to set father against son and son against father; to set the whole world ablaze (cf. Lk. 12:49-53). Such expressions are easily manipulated, and perhaps difficult to parse, or at least to apply to concrete situations. Nevertheless, they are at bottom an expression of the basic opposition Christ’s coming into the world establishes between Him and His followers, on the one side, and those surrendered to the world’s addictions, on the other – hence, a warning about the inevitability of conflict, for which Christians are to be prepared.

There will always be those, who respond to truth with querulousness, accuse truth-tellers of divisiveness, and receive frankness as though it were offered to discourage. The certain presence of such pathologies of responsiveness must mean that they can never serve as criteria for determining the truth of their occasions.

Pope Francis writes, “An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful.” A sound argument may indeed be deployed in furtherance of an unsound end, and sound facts soundly presented may indeed prove hurtful to a person’s sentiments or reputation. If, however, the facts and the argument are sound, the question of their use is quite apart from their truthfulness. With public figures, information that might damage a reputation if brought before the public may well merit public scrutiny nonetheless. While we hope that journalists will be careful and discriminating in these regards, there can be no question of their primary duty, which is to what we used to call the public weal, in the service of which it is from time to time necessary to expose the badness of powerful persons.

Pope Francis says, “[A] weighty responsibility rests on the shoulders of those whose job is to provide information, namely, journalists, the protectors of news. In today’s world, theirs is, in every sense, not just a job; it is a mission.” Though one might quibble with the formulation, especially with the deployment of the language of mission, it is impossible to disagree with the purport of the statement, which is that journalists have a sort of “duty of care” toward the reputations of their subjects, and at the same time a duty to keep faith with the public trust that is the foundation and reason for their profession.

Knowing that it will be honored too often in the breach, free societies have determined that public institutional means may not be deployed to safeguard that trust, without endangering the very liberty the trust is engendered to serve. This only increases the weight of the responsibility that rests on journalists’ shoulders.

Journalists inform and facilitate the public discourse by bringing the facts before the citizenry as fulsomely as possible and insofar as they are understood. They have a responsibility to frame issues fairly, not favorably. If a public figure makes a careless remark on the record, for example, that is on the public figure, not the journalist who reports the public figure’s careless speech. Fake news is fake. Bad press may be the result of very sound journalism. The problem is that the standard proposed by Pope Francis cannot but tend to favor the powerful over and against the people, who have, as the great Massachusetts lawyer and Founding Father of American nationhood put it:

[A] right, from the frame of their nature, to knowledge, as their great Creator, who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings, and a desire to know; but besides this, they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible, divine right to that most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean, of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

“[D]isinformation,” writes Pope Francis, “is often based on deliberately evasive and subtly misleading rhetoric and at times the use of sophisticated psychological mechanisms.” Indeed, it is. The Holy Father’s Message goes on to discuss the “snake-tactics” he says are “used by those who disguise themselves in order to strike at any time and place,” tactics he says “we” – citizens and journalists alike – have a duty to unmask.

Perhaps, sometimes. It is more often the case that we all ought to ignore the serpent. That is what Francis often tells the faithful to do with the devil, and it is better advice than he gives for dealing with Fake News. Perhaps, by “unmasking” he means something more like “recognizing” or seeing the serpentine Fake News bits we are bound to come across, for what they are. It is not what he says, though, and that is largely the point.

Journalists are trained – they used to be, at any rate – to trade in the so-called “Five Ws”: Who? What? Where? When? Why? That last one is especially tough to nail down, and is in essence a synthesis of the first four. Together, they form the basis of the public trust it is every journalist’s duty to safeguard, and the bulwark of the ethical code that developed out of the practice of the journalistic profession in the age of print. Commitment to bringing the Five Ws before the public continued to drive the best journalism through the mass media age of radio and television. If developments in communications technology, and the effects those developments continue to have on our culture, make it necessary to ask whether journalism as it has traditionally been understood and practiced is still possible within the contemporary culture and environment, the answer to the question can only be found in a return to the practice of good journalistic fundamentals.

Such a return may not save the public square, but it will help foster an environment in which the only kind of public discourse worth conducting may have a chance to flourish.

All of us together, as citizens, can begin to escape the often surreal world in which we find ourselves at present, by cultivating two attitudes: a reticence to let ourselves be “sold” on narratives that fit our general view of things, or cast our favorite characters in a sympathetic light, coupled with a willingness to expose the views with which we agree, to the caustic process of critical examination; at the same time, we must cultivate the quintessentially Ignatian discipline of “thinking all the good we can” of people, their ideas, and their modes of expressing them. At the very least, we must become less willing to believe the absolute worst about the people with whom we broadly and generally disagree.

In this effort of recovery, Catholics in every trade, profession, and state of life, have a tremendous opportunity once again to prove that Catholic religion, so far from being inimical to the morals of a republic, can in fact have a quite salutary effect thereupon, if it is practiced sincerely.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 95 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, writer, and editor based in Rome, Italy. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

13 Comments

  1. PF’s romantic appeals for “journalism” and his use of the buzz words “fake news” reveal a man obsessed with politics and posturing.

    Altering immediately notes the contrast with Jesus’ admonition that the Gospel WILL cause divisions, even in families, which of course we see painfully in our very own lives.

    PF seems like a man adrift in the zeitgeist.

      • “Pope Francis writes, ‘An impeccable argument can indeed rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful.'”

        That statement in itself is material heresy. It is passive aggressiveness. It is a Gestapo-like and Peronist tactic to silence opposition. It is a tactic abusers use to prevent the victim from going forward to authorities (“don’t tell your parents or the police! It would be mean-spirited and rigid, and it would harm my reputation if you tell others! You don’t want to hurt me, do you? Be merciful on me! Accompany me, here, and we can walk together! See you tomorrow?!” Etc.)

        Even a non-astute observer will note that Pope Francis regularly attempts to publicly discredit persons in the eyes of others. Of course, Pope Francis actually uses lies/misrepresentations, rather than truth, to defame others – and he almost always uses indirect methods to defame others because he is a coward (Revelation 21:8; while “coward” is like “name-calling”, it is a necessary short-cut to describe the actions of Pope Francis et. al. God Himself – Jesus Christ – regularly used such short-cuts in the Gospel).

        Pope Francis’ above quote/guiding principle is indeed the Gestapo tactic of claiming that “since I am The Surprise of the Holy Spirit, and because I am going to heaven, and because I take money from the poor and give to the poor, I can discredit others with public misrepresentations. You must respect my authoritar. I do what I want, I am The Surprise of the Holy Spirit. But, you peon-and-rigid-neo-pelagian lay persons over there in the U.S., you cannot use truth to discredit me or my Lavendar Mafia St. Galen buddies, because I am The Surprise of the Holy Spirit, and they are my angels, and everyone goes to heaven. Everyone.” Etc. (Again, Pope Francis has literally said or implied the previous statement. Render not your garments, those of you who commit mortal sin against the 1st Commandment and are idolatrous for Pope Francis.)

        Jesus says, “if your brother sins, rebuke him”, (Luke 17:3), and sometimes in public (Matthew 18:15-17). But, yet again, Pope Francis abuses the Gospel to propagate the anti-Gospel. Thus, PF is materially in heresy with the above statement.

        Note, too, that this abuse of the real Gospel to propagate the anti-Gospel is regularly preached from many pulpits. Remember, clergy, many people end up in hell (Luke 13:24), and the vast majority of those clergy think they are going to heaven (Luke 13:24-26). That is because one of the first steps to hell is freely allowing your conscience to be deadened. From then on, you will not realize it is dead, and you will not see that your idolatry for Pope Francis is mortally sinful.

  2. Pope Francis goes on to say, “We can recognize the truth of statements from their fruits: whether they provoke quarrels, foment division, encourage resignation; or, on the other hand, they promote informed and mature reflection leading to constructive dialogue and fruitful results.”

    If Pope Bergoglio had the simple honesty to apply this standard to his own remarks, it might be evident to him why he is a veritable fount of fake news and a high priest of “snake tactics”.

  3. Pope Francis recently harkened back to Genesis and “blamed” the serpent for fake news by enticing Adam to partake of the forbidden apple. Catholics would shiver in their hobnails if they were to place any blame on God who created all and knew what was to unfold. Adam might have still been recovering from his creation and not fully cognizant of his deeds.

    In the US we have a “fake news” dilemma between ultra-right TV/Radio/Press/POTUS vs. the left. It appears that Americans cannot be assured that what they see from the media or POTUS can be relied upon. Compound that with the fact that Trump has directly challenged his own Department of Justice as creating “false reports”. He has taken a disastrous position that if you disagree with him you are his enemy. That mentality has many psychological explanations.

    • “He has taken a disastrous position that if you disagree with him you are his enemy.” Part of a dubious tradition that has existed for decades, if not centuries. Take a gander at the tactics and attitude of, say, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, or Barack Obama.

    • You have that all backwards. It’s the liberal main stream media that has the fake news. Remember their reports of seeing dead people floating down on a street in Louisiana that never had that flooding? Oh that was the liberal left media for sure. It’s just one of the countless examples of their lies and deceptions.
      It’s sad that they constantly attack Trump and spread nonsense about him. Trump is one of the most pro-life Presidents ever. Thank God for Trump.

      • The serious concern is just the position you take… Trump or nothing!

        With all of his recent tribulations, again nailing him as a liar, if he somehow makes it past Mueller his administration will be seriously wounded by his entrenched Freedom Caucus congress.

    • Trump is highly relevant here. Think of the now-exploded, bogus story that he “mocked a reporter’s disability.” Or the universal mockery that greeted his assertion that Trump Tower had been put under illegal government surveillance. Now proved true.

      There is absolutely no basis for the assertion that Trump bears some sort of unusual, above-normal hostility to those who “disagree with him.” If Trump didn’t recognize that those who slander him and text about plans to murder him are his enemies, he would be a fool unfit for public life.

      Donald Trump is the first American politician who is actively attempting to dismantle a multi-decade, multi-national regime of Satanist, abortionist, collectivist pedophiles. The hysterical, cacophonous anti-Trump slander-machine–of which some of the Catholic hierarchy and media are a part–gives evidence that he is over the target.

  4. Really, dear bishop of Rome, where is the truth about the gay sex party in the cardinal’s apartment held down the street from where you live? Is the Monsignor/host still in detox? Your press secretary is very much aware of this but there is only silence from his office.
    This, Francis, is FakeNews. It is what the communists were expert at minipulating. Simply ask your Marxist friends
    And please, we grow tired of your lectures. You are not the world’s expert on everything, in spite of what your humble ego tells you.

  5. The bishop of Rome may have something to say regarding morals to Catholics engaged in journalism. As to how Catholics should respond to non-Christians manipulating the mass media? No.

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