2017-03-04 / Viewpoints

Taking the truth for a spin

BY RONNIE SCHENKEIN

(Ronnie Schenkein is a retired veterinarian and occasional commentator on public affairs. She operated the Coudersport Animal Health Center for more than a quarter-century.)

As we witness the truth spinning at warp speed, with leaders calling anything that doesn’t conform with their views a lie, and calling all the protestors paid (who has that much money, to pay for massive demonstrations all over the world?), I am channeling my father.

He died 27 years ago, but he also must be spinning in his grave at warp speed, bringing him once again to my childhood dinner table where our family had so many weighty conversations.

How we got our information on current events was important to him. At the time, the popular newspapers in New York City were the Times, the Post and the Daily News. He got the Times every day.

One day he brought home a copy of each. On the front page of the Times were multiple articles on events locally and around the world. On the inside back pages of the first section were editorials, op-eds (which were differing opinions) and letters to the editor. In other words, written conversations about issues of the day.

On the front pages of the other two papers, were typically reports of murders, fires, and scandals and celebrities.

He explained to us about “yellow journalism.” He explained that murders, fires, celebrity scandals and wars sell newspapers. Some newspapers pandered to people’s idle curiosity and to their emotions, which was quite profitable. Others, like the New York Times, held themselves to a higher standard and went to great effort to provide in-depth information and thoughtful commentary by experts.

Today, the children of yellow journalism are fantasy shows about wealth and fame, obsessions on what famous people are “really doing,” weird conspiracy theories, hatemongering websites and click-bait on Facebook. People’s emotions are aroused, as they are having fun, but becoming more and more confused.

It used to be so unusual to find a spelling error or a typographical error that I kept a little scrapbook with cutouts of them (and the New Yorker Magazine continues to print funny ones at the bottom of some pages). Not so much, today.

At the supermarket checkout, I used to see tabloids for sale with bizarre fictions about movie stars, things like “Meryl Streep gives birth to 400-pound alien.” I asked my father why the subjects of these falsehoods didn’t sue the publications for printing obvious lies. He responded that the celebrities didn’t want to call any more attention to the nonsense.

When I asked if people buying these tabloids believed their obvious lies, he said, “Who knows? They’re having fun reading them.”

Has this tolerance given birth to the presence of Steve Bannon, a promoter of hateful fictions, as advisor to our Celebrity Apprentice President?

On television, my father loved best the MacNeil Lehrer Report. There was civilized discussion among experts with experience and credentials to demonstrate their knowledge of the field and interviews with important world figures. It was rare for participants to interrupt or shout down anyone with whom they disagreed.

He would be appalled at the news discussions currently on television, featuring “commentators” with no background or credentials to prove their knowledge, interrupting, calling names, insulting those who disagree and not allowing them time to speak.

Perhaps our news discussions should feature a “talking stick” from the Native American tradition, and nobody else gets to speak until they give up the stick. Or would somebody refuse to give up the stick, ever?

I wonder, what example are we giving to our young people, and what kind of future we are leaving to them, when this is the public model of conflict resolution?

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