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Speaking truth in the era of alternative facts

“In the morning when the sun rises,
sometimes it’s hard to believe there ever was a night.”

Brian Cameron in Gaslight, 1944.

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Our profession has a bad rap, and it’s getting worse. Terms like “fake news” and “crisis actor” have recently joined such classics as “paparazzi” and “camera hog” in the American lexicon. Many folks already couldn’t keep up with the ever expanding news cycle when an unregulated and unfamiliar Internet gave rise to social media. Suddenly serious journalism from credentialed news reporters was on the same platforms alongside abject fiction packaged as news. People who already distrusted “mainstream media” had no idea what to believe, and the resulting social chaos devolved into culture wars and an emerging political juggernaut whose collective grasp of reality was at best tenuous.

We desperately want to put the rancor behind us. We want to return to a world where authoritarians aren’t organizing armed insurrections to overturn free elections, and where people are civil with each other regardless of political or tribal affiliation. But every time we scroll our newsfeeds, we’re inundated with politicians parroting baseless claims of election fraud. And while their actions would normally disqualify them from holding public office, these days their willingness to foment violent revolution is the only thing stopping their constituents from voting them out.

It’s no overstatement to say today’s media professionals are regarded with contemptuous skepticism, and for reasons that echo the rise of Euro-fascism a century ago. The alt-right personality cult has doubled down on its creed: Kremlin propaganda is trustworthy, and independent private sector journalism is a hoax. Black is white, down is up. And you either believe the white nationalist story, or you’re dubbed a pawn in the global zionist conspiracy (or worse). It’s a belief that just ten years ago would have relegated you to the lunatic fringe. But in huge swaths of American society, it’s the new normal.

And it’s not just individuals who are feeling the heat. The alt-right propaganda machine consistently describes media companies as “censoring” groups and politicians who knowingly spread lies and disinformation. Nevermind that private organizations are not part of the government. Nevermind that they lack the power to punish anyone for saying anything short of slander. In post-factual America, operating a media platform now obligates the owner to publish every lie and libelous statement uttered by its users. To do anything less is “censorship.”

So as media professionals, how do we preserve the courage to say the emperor is naked, even when our neighbors and coworkers insist he’s wearing the world’s finest clothing? Recent events made it clear that a lot of folks have grown immune to knowable facts, even to the point of raising torches and pitchforks against the rule of law. It’s not clear yet how many are willing to kill police and American troops in the service of their masters. But on 1/6/21, some did in fact kill Capitol Hill police officers. Does anyone believe they won’t try that again? Or that they won’t murder journalists, pundits, academics, educators and anyone who hesitates to espouse their radical views?

When confronted by mobs of militant extremists, it’s tempting to run and hide — or at least to remain quiet. Speaking truth to power is never easy. And it’s even harder when power appears to have lost its ability to separate fact from fiction.

Yet for writers, artists, journalists, photographers and anyone who shares information online, silence equals acquiescence. And if you’ve stayed awake through more than ten minutes of an American Civics course in middle school, you already know that the adversarial posture of a free press is essential to keeping governments honest (or at least accountable) in constitutional republics like ours. That means unless we want to try our luck at authoritarian kleptocracy, silence is not an option.

Confronted with such a volatile social environment, we are all compelled to become more competent communicators in every medium and context. The default setting for mass media audiences is somewhere between disdain and disbelief, regardless how obvious the underlying facts. Meanwhile, social media consumers are too often willing and eager to believe un-sourced fabrications to preserve a comfortable dogma. The great challenge before us is to pull back the curtain and reveal the petty grifter who animates the “great and powerful Oz.” It is only when our countrymen recognize how they have been duped that they’ll begin to relax their chokehold on Western democracy.

Compassion and self-care

They say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. The metaphor is unflattering, but you get the point. No one wants to be yelled at, lectured to, or liberated from their ignorance. While it might seem more efficient to settle interpersonal differences in a drunken brawl, we humans reflexively tune out anyone who doesn’t appear to care about us personally.

So come down from the pulpit. Take time to get acquainted with the folks nextdoor. Until you’ve formed a solid and genuine friendship, put any discussions of social or political differences on the back burner. You can stir that pot later, once you’re sure your relationship can tolerate the stress.

And don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Know your limits, and don’t overdo it. It doesn’t take long to get burned out, especially when faceless trolls discover your willingness to respond to their comments. (Hint: don’t respond to comments from faceless trolls.) Even when life is bleak, remember the physical, emotional and mental components of your health are intertwined. Get plenty of rest, exercise, water, nutrition and quality time with the ones you love. Good health fosters a positive attitude, which lessens the harm that you and your counterpart can inflict on one another.

Published in The big picture