Sunday, 10 January 2021

Fake News and Other Mindbenders

What a year it’s been - so many people dead from a pandemic that at the least could have been handled in a better manner. Even as I write more Americans are dying daily from Covid-19 than perished during the attacks on 9/11.


But help is on the way from two vaccines, although the number of people who say they will refuse inoculation is staggeringly high.


That will change as they see family and friends take their shots and become immune to this highly contagious disease.


The same cannot be said for another malady that is gnawing away at a pillar of our democracy – the attack on the very concept of truth.


The phrase “fake news,” popularized by our soon to be ex-president, is top of the pops among other Trumpian truth-benders such as “alternative facts,” “Russian hoax,” “deep state,” et al. 


“Fake news” is the ultimate verbal weapon for it can be breezily tossed off to dismiss any fact or opinion that one disagrees with.


As an Irish Echo columnist my gig is to give opinions on various subjects. 


Simple as pie, you might think, but as pleasurable as it is I still have to check and validate every concrete statement I make or quote.


Take my opening homily on “fake news” a few lines back. Although Donald Trump claimed to have originated the phrase, it was actually coined by Craig Silverman in 2014 while he was running a research project at Columbia University.


Since Mr. Trump takes credit for so many innovations it behooved me to check out the truthfulness of his claim; accordingly, I was forced to change “originated” for “popularized.”


Luckily I have an editor who would likely have caught my error before “yer man from Pearl River” would have taken me to task with a scathing public letter and cost me a free drink at the Echo Christmas party.


Personally I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal for news. I’ve found that both esteemed newspapers invariably print the same informed facts.


Their opinion pieces, however, wildly differ. Yet you can tell even those have been given the factual once over by experienced editors. Besides, both papers have “apology” columns where factual mistakes and misstatements are corrected within days.


And yet so many people get their unfiltered news from Facebook, Twitter, and friendly Russian bots.


That’s like hearing “facts” at Paddy Reilly’s at 4am with 6 or 7 pints aboard. 


Recently I was informed by a number of social media adherents that, “Joe Biden intends taxing our 401(ks) and IRAs.”


I reassured these troubled souls that they should rest easy – it’s unlikely that our future president would wish to commit political suicide before even being handed the keys of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.


Upon looking into the matter I discovered that Mr. Biden had mentioned a desire to give more 401 (k) tax breaks to lower and middle income earners to bring them up to par with the relative breaks afforded upper income earners


The truth, apparently, got skewered intentionally in the telling.  But without truth and a modicum of decency where will we be?


This year we’ve lost two journalists who are the epitome of truth and decency.


Mark Shields has retired after 33 years of giving opinions on PBS NewsHour. I haven’t always agreed with him but there’s something so utterly American and sensible about the man.


After the invasion of Iraq he stumped David Brooks, his conservative partner on the popular show, by inquiring if he really thought that an American Christian occupying force would succeed in subduing a Muslim country?


One of the measures of Shields’ influence is that Brooks has moderated his views over the years and become a thoughtful and very informative centrist.


Pete Hamill is another case in point. I happened to be in a group with him when someone ventured that given the catastrophe of 9/11 the practice of waterboarding terrorists was justified.


Pete didn’t even raise his voice when he replied, “We’re Americans, we don’t do torture.”


He didn’t need to elaborate for he had made a simple but profound statement.


Let’s hope in 2021 we’ll aspire to be more than we are again, and return to core American values, in particular, truth and decency.

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