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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