Truth under Attack
Bryan M. Zemanski
Third place, Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility, August, 2019
In modern America, most of us are constantly bombarded with news and information via mass media and technology. Staying informed without following false or misleading information can be challenging, and in this age where information is ubiquitous, facts appear increasingly subjective. As events in the real world are often nuanced and complex, and because bias is a relentless human tendancy, no single perspective or resource ensures absolute objectivity.
However, there exists a growing public sentiment that the mainstream mass media does not even strive for objectivity or honest. With much clamor about “fake news,” we see frequent heated controversy regarding basic facts of current events, historical and scientific information, and the actions and reputations of public figures. Narrowing down truth often requires diversified and critical research. To understand how we’ve gotten into such a conflicted state, we need to look at some of the history and complexities of modern mass media.
In the mid-twentieth century, mass media in America consisted of newspapers, radio, and a few nationally broadcast television networks. In recent decades, the media landscape has broadened to include a vast array of mediums thanks to advances in technology. Today, we enjoy twenty-four hour access to news and information as we’ve developed the infrastructure to equip the majority of people with uninterrupted communication via internet, satellite, cellular devices, and social media.
We can find dozens of raging pundits and sycophants screaming on cable so-called news networks, podcasts to entertain every interest and belief, and opinion-based news often dominates the headlines. The proliferation of misinformation and disinformation has rendered many skeptical, and conspiracy theories abound as some try to make sense out of nonsense. Often, what is portrayed as news at noon is debunked by six in the evening. The truth is on the move.
Realistically, fairness and objectivity are not ideals to which many journalists even aim to aspire. Information is often cherry-picked amongst the facts of real-life scenarios and is tailored into sensational and polarized narratives. The practice is neither new nor unique to our current cultural and political climate. Even in our nation’s earliest days, pamphleteers and tabloids dominated the media landscape with biased rhetoric. But in our modern society where limitless information is available at our fingertips, objective truth is often obscured not only by the slant of the author’s intentions but also by the sheer mass of interpretation available.
Mass media is a big business. With corporate financial stake in the mix and the practice of selling information for ads, ratings, and influence over public policy, we have grown accustomed to a daily prophesy of impending doom. Extremism captures the public’s attention thus that’s what sells the news. We have become desensitized to fear and anger as powerful influences prey on our basest instincts. Crisis, controversy, and terror are ever present, both real and contrived.
When so-called facts are portrayed by media sources, nowadays we can easily access “alternative facts.” To many, this phenomenon of parallel narratives conjures up a disturbing likeness to the dystopian worlds created in the mid-twentieth century novels of George Orwell and Ray Bradbury. These authors wrote prophetically about societal and political interests destroying or manipulating the integrity of information to satisfy specific agendas. Although these authors’ works have long been used as instructional satire in academia, we have seen their popularity surge in recent years as they again top major bestseller lists.
If we base all of our beliefs and assumptions about reality on front page headlines, tickers, tabloids, and talking heads, we are destined to be fooled by spin. Certainly there are legitimate facts conveyed by some popular media sources and pundits, and there lies value in weighing the opinions of learned individuals, but the value of any argument lies in the accuracy of the information being expressed. As agendas and opinions run rampant, we need not be naively shepherded into tribalism or swayed by narratives disguised as news.
Of profound significance is the freedom of speech and freedom of the press afforded us in this great nation under the first amendment to the Constitution. We enjoy liberties and promote a culture of public discourse unparalleled in human history. In these United States, we may express ourselves as we wish without fear of imprisonment, but with these freedoms comes the risk of intellectual peril at the hands of those whose motivations exceed their integrity.
If we strive personally for objectivity and wish to glean truth in the age of information, we must be responsible to educate ourselves. This does not require pursuing a formal degree nor does it need to cost us a penny. A great place to begin is at a public library. Delving into historical documents, archives, public records, biographies, and other time-honored texts at least make us harder prey for purveyors of falsity. If we broadly research the past and present in concert, we can better understand how our current state of affairs fits into the context of history and the world about us. Objective truth exists but finding it may require some research.