NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Truth and Consequences

What is truth? Philosophers may have debated that since time began, but I’ll tell you how I define it: Truth is what I expect to read in my much-respected daily newspaper. Yet when we picked our paper off the doorstep this morning and shook it out of its little orange plastic sack, nearly the first thing we encountered was a long piece on the editorial page based on either A) clear factual mistakes, or B) flat-out lies.

The Forum featured a lengthy reader response decrying a column by opinionator Mike McFeely, recently regrafted into the Forum Communications family tree (and sadly missed by The Extra in Moorhead and KFGO Radio). The critic, one Jim Crawford, chose the most scathing of tones to strip the bark off McFeely’s trunk over his support of a reasoned, compassionate response to the Syrian refugee crisis. (Read today’s piece at http://www.inforum.com/letters/3890740-letter-mcfeely-cant-be-serious and Mike’s original column at www.inforum.com/news/3885013-mcfeely-dalrymples-refugee-reversal-sign-strange-times.)

The commenter based his rebuke on France’s acceptance of 4,500 fleeing Syrians whom he assumes included the ISIS terrorists who murdered more than 130 in Paris on Nov. 13. He sneers, “Their loved ones are dead, but, by God, they took the high road and welcomed their killers.”

No, they didn’t. He is simply wrong … and it couldn’t be easier to check his claim.

French and other European investigators have soundly disproven the fast and fearful American reaction to the terror in Paris  ― the jumped-to conclusion that the ISIS perpetrators hid among 3 million Syrians fleeing to neighboring nations in the Middle East and Europe. That was a knee-jerk rumor that, since exploding into the headlines with the force of a million suns, has been thoroughly debunked. It is not true. Refugees were not involved in ISIS’ attacks. The partisans were French and Belgian citizens who sympathized with the radical extremist cause  ― most of them born right there in Europe.

The red-herring Syrian passport dropped at one scene, purportedly that of a refugee who’d passed into Europe, has also been proven to be a counterfeit ― a bit of psychological fakery by the terror contingent that was deliberately planted to implicate fleeing Syrians and inspire precisely this kind of mistaken outcry.

Every legitimate international and American news organization has been sharing these facts as they’ve emerged. The editors of The Forum surely knew that the opinion piece was based on a premise that is flat-out wrong when they chose to publish it without further comment. After all, Reuters headlines made it clear on their own pages.

Why on earth would a legitimate, journalist-populated medium knowingly publish clearly untrue propaganda like the piece on today’s editorial page?

Freedom of speech, its defenders explain … either that or the public’s right to know about the nut cases that abound around them.

Baloney. There’s more to it than that. The Constitution protects all Americans’ freedom of speech. But it speaks not one word about any right to be uncritically published or broadcast  ― particularly on the editorial page, where the choice to include any opinion piece or letter to the editor is absolutely subject to the will of the editor.

The need to report on newsmakers who may be telling bald-faced lies is one thing. We must. The freedom to lie in political discourse has, sadly, been well-established ever since this republic began. Given the outcome we’re witnessing among the Republican field of candidates, however, it’s heartening to see that even the sober and even-handed press is beginning to gingerly push back with (often apologetic) fact-checking.

Expressing one’s opinions may be sacred … but how about also giving some respect to the actual, proven, documented truth?

Friends in the business argue that providing a platform to shed light on all points of view is essential to journalism and free debate. I agree entirely. And I know it can be a hard and thankless call to sort out reality from rhetoric.

But it’s a cop-out to knowingly distribute disinformation and then seek to justify it by expecting rational readers to sort it out themselves. Figuring out factual fallacies is what we expect the news media to do on our behalf  ― not just provide us with some kind of do-it-yourself kit. Let’s call publication of inflammatory pieces like that one what it really is: a provocative ploy to plump up “reader engagement” and fan the controversy … and yes, I know full well I’m playing right into their game.

If reporters write news stories that are factually faulty, the editors must and do correct them as quickly as they’re discovered. Granted, they may publish those corrections in teeny, tiny mouse type way down on the bottom of page two, but they do take steps to correct the record. This isn’t just high-minded commitment to the public’s right to know. Depending on whose ox is gored, it’s often emergency triage, for if the maligned individual can prove harm or injury, the lawyers may be circling the publisher’s office like buzzards. We call it “libel.”

A correction may constitute a defense, but reality has taught us a far less flimsy truth: No correction, however quick or sincere, ever really catches up to the error. How many of those who read the original copy bothered to later search out these newsroom gestures to right the record? How many noticed it but responded, “Well, so-and-so obviously got to them,” and continue to relish the damage done?

If that’s true of news, shouldn’t it have some relation to whatever else gains the implicit endorsement of being chosen for inclusion in those same pages, even beneath the heading “Your Opinion”? Pros may need to be reminded that while the distinction between real news and editorial opinion is clear within our own circle, much of the civilian world digests it all under the banner of “I read in the newspaper, so it must be true.”

In this ugly era of unashamed, often-strategic political lies, I call on our newspaper  ― and I hope you will, too  ― to fact-check inflammatory propaganda before feeding it uncritically to its readers.

Or how about expecting the editors to exercise their own precious right to speak freely? Publish whatever crap arrives in the mailbox, yes, but top it with this headline: “The following is based on a big, fat lie.”

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Truth and Consequences”

  • Therese November 27, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    Thanks for your eloquent analysis. It’s great to hear the reasonable, critical thinking that should characterize journalism!


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