The tellers of truth are not the “enemies of the people”

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Last week, I joined with thousands of people around the country engaging with Q Commons on the topic “The Power of We.” For those less familiar, I’d soundbite Q as “TedTalks through a Christian worldview.”

As one of the Dallas Speakers, I tackled the topic of media in our divisive age. The video is below, but I’ve also included my script, as there were a couple pieces I had to trim on the fly to make the time limit work.

(N.B.: If you already know me, you can skip the intro. I come on around the 1:50 mark. Also, apologies for the lighting, which was not particularly video friendly. Finally, note that this talk was before the horrific Tree of Life Synagogue shooting on Saturday, but the point remains the same.)

I’m happy to be here — it’s a great capper to the week. I’ve been busy this week hosting a conference for the Local Media Consortium, where newspapers and broadcasters from around the country have gathered to coordinate how we plan to spend the bags of cash George Soros sent us to ensure that Hillary wins next time.

I’m glad that got a laugh, or this would have become a VERY different talk. Seriously, anyone who has looked at the financial statement of an American local newspaper or listened to us try to coordinate something as simple as where to meet for dinner would understand how laughable the idea of media conspiracy really is.

But this is not going to be a political talk. I promise this is not going to be a political talk. For fair disclosure, I am an independent —neither right or left, as I like to say, I’m a “curse on both your houses equal-opportunity offender.”

So this is not a political talk. In fact, in the classical sense of the word, this is an apolitical talk.

But it’s impossible to address what I want to talk about tonight, or seemingly anything in our world today, without acknowledging the political and social moment we are in right now. And to do that, we need a little context.

As we humans do, we took an amazing thing — words — and then screwed it up.

In the beginning, there was the Word. And the Word was good. And then, God saw that Adam and Eve ate from the tree, and Adam sayeth “fake news!”

At the beginning of civilization, it was hard to distribute information. There was word of mouth and you had to trust the source speaking the words or painting the pictures. As early as the 13th Century BC there are records of Rameses the Great spreading the lie that the Battle of Kadesh was a great victory, both verbally and in temple paintings.

Then, with writing, facts could be written and distributed, but only to a select few, or treasured in a temple where people would gather to read. In the First Century BC, Octavian took down Mark Anthony with scrolls claiming to be Anthony’s will, stating that he had the temerity to demand to be buried alongside the pharaohs.

Fake news has an impact on the early Christian church, as its enemies circulated writings claiming that communion made us cannibals and that the dogma of immaculate conception made us practitioners of ritual incest.

And then came the revolution of printing, and Gutenberg brought words to many. Even then, the cost of mass printing and distribution acted as a bit of a barrier against false witness, but the crafty could find a way. For instance, our beloved founding father Benjamin Franklin wrote “fake news” about Indians scalping colonists for King George in order to foment revolution.

The New York Sun, the first modern newspaper, built its circulation on a series of fake stories about creatures on the moon. But over time, the industry normalized, and as a forced bundle of stories interesting to a geography or an industry, became trusted as a daily “paper of record.”

And then the internet brought the cost of distribution of words near zero, meaning that as we’ve learned to use this tool, we’ve discovered an ease of distribution never before dreamed of, but with a perilous problem: The cost of spreading lies is just as low as the cost of spreading truth. And therein lies the tipping point that takes us from ordinary human jackanapes to mortal danger — I can make up a lie tonight and have it spread around the world by social media and believed by millions of people by tomorrow.

Where, you may ask, is the Tower of Babel when we really need it?

In that kind of a world, how do we know if anything is true?

We have a bit of a perfect storm: A postmodern world in which which the pendulum of tolerance has swung so wide that our young people talk not in terms of truth, but “my truth,” as if capital-T “truth” is no longer a thing. And if we all have our own truth, do we all get our own facts, tailored to our personal biases and opinions? Place that in context of ease of distribution on the internet, and Russian trolls and incendiary and false social postings by political figures start looking like a result of the times rather than a cause of them.

An analysis by Buzzfeed News showed that the top 20 verifiably fake news stories in the 2016 Presidential election got more engagement on social media than the top 20 stories from major news outlets. While 82% of college students say that news is critical to democracy, half lack confidence that they can tell real news from fake. Most middle school students can’t tell the difference between an ad and an article. And that’s before DeepFakes, the easily-created video fakes of celebrities and politicians speaking in video, become pervasive.

It’s a scary time. And it’s doubly so in my business. Just yesterday, bombs were delivered to politicians and media companies around the country. An American resident journalist was brutally murdered in Saudi Arabia. And our president praised a politician who had been sentenced assaulting a local journalist for his ability to “body-slam.” His words calling us “enemies of the people” were quoted by a man threatening to bomb the Boston Globe. [I have a note here that says “insert whatever awful thing happened today.]

If that wasn’t enough, while some national outlets like The New York Times and Washington Post thrive on the coattails of a so-called “Trump bump,” local news outlets are going through a painful and transformative metamorphosis from your father’s print newspaper of record to a local digital source of choices based on what readers are willing to fund. And that may be the buried lede that most stands to transform our lives.

Look, I have worked in the media all my life, either as a journalist or more often working the supply lines like I do now. And I believe that good journalism, which is still widely practiced in our country, is a Holy mission.

At the top of the Gospel of Luke, he lays out a pretty good mission statement for a journo: “I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning” he wrote, “so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”

In a recent NY Times piece, former minister and now-journalist Marshall Allen makes a case for what we do:

“a natural progression from the ministry to muckraking, pointing out that both are valid ways of serving a higher cause. The Bible endorses telling the truth, without bias. So does journalism. The Bible commands honesty and integrity. In journalism, your reputation is your main calling card with sources and readers.”

Can we do better and be more objective? Always. We are human people. But our enemy in the war of holding the powerful to account is not party or policy, but falsehood.

Here’s the problem: While what we print about national politics is interesting and inflammatory, and gives something easy to comment about on social media, it is — It’s important — but far less impactful on your daily life than local government. Even some of the most incendiary decisions nationally like abortion and gun control will ultimately just create parameters around which the local decisions are made.

So here’s a question — good or bad, and I don’t care which, who here has an opinion on President Trump?

OK. Who here knows who they’ll vote for in the senate race between Cruz and O’Rourke? Hmm?

Now — and let’s be honest. Who know who their city council representative is? Voted? Did you know you can get on the Dallas City Council with fewer than 1,500 votes?

One more: Who knows who the Railroad Commissioner is? What they do?

I dragged you through that for a reason. While the newspaper industry gets dogged for skewing liberal — and maybe that’s fair — most of the work we do is local. We hold local government; local politicians accountable. And that’s a largely nonpartisan affair.

And this is so important, because while there are a thousand lights shining on the reality show in Washington, that’s less so and sometimes nonexistent locally. And that’s why corruption, inefficiency and bad government can run rampant in the institutions most likely to tax you, to take your property, to jail you, to injure your family, or fail to serve you.

In just the last few months, at The Dallas Morning News, we’ve uncovered financial mismanagement in the DeSoto schools; lack of access in McKinney city government, and a statewide failure to protect poor, sick children from profiteering health care providers, leading to state policymakers taking on the previously unknown issue in the legislature. This sort of work is, with all respect to our national editorialists, far more critical to our local community than today’s national headlines.

We’ve reported on more than two dozen homes that have blown up — BLOWN UP — in the last ten years, killing nine and injuring 22 because of leaky gas lines. Did you know this? And guess who is responsible for enforcing gas line regulations?

In large part, our old friend, the Railroad Commission. Ready to vote yet?

Meanwhile, there is less and less local news available as the business challenges mount. A recent study by Duke University and the Columbia Journalism Review found massive news deserts in the US — and surprisingly they are worse in major metropolitan areas where people in the suburbs depend on the larger metro paper to cover them, which is hard with diminishing resources.

So what’s my call to action? What can you do?

Not to turn this into a commercial, but subscribe to a local newspaper online. Doesn’t have to be us. Pick another. Pick the town of your birth. Read and engage. Consult a voter guide and be as informed on local judgeships and commissioners as you are on national races.

In all of your interactions, don’t bear false witness. (And in both senses of the word bear: Don’t carry it; don’t tolerate it.) Don’t share links to sources you don’t know are true. Use NewsGuard, FactCheck.org, Snopes or a similar tool to check to make sure your source is good. Don’t pile on to the latest jab from either side of the aisle without understanding the facts. And don’t let any human being decide for you that there is no such thing as truth.

And maybe, drop out of that fray for a bit and look at your own town, your own neighborhood. Before you shout about the speck in Donald Trump or Barak Obama’s eye, consider the plank in the gas lines in your own neighborhood.

Change your reading habits. If your Facebook feed is full of junk, that’s a reflection of what you have consumed. The algorithm is a mirror. Do you like what you see?

And maybe, before you yell at your neighbor on Facebook or Nextdoor, go knock on her door and talk to her about how she’s doing.

That news could be the most important you share all week.

 

Mike Orren is the Chief Product Officer of The Dallas Morning News; President of Belo Business Intelligence; husband to Crystal Orren; and a Mungarian at Munger Place Church in Dallas, TX. All opinions herein are mine alone.