News Fit to Print?
What often passes as news is hardly earth shattering
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, one of the things he found remarkable was the incredibly high rate of literacy among the citizenry. But what was more remarkable to him was that, despite the high literacy rate, freedom of thought was practically non-existent. He blamed this on one thing: the fact that nearly everyone read not the classics but newspapers. This made them, in his mind, particularly prone to propaganda. Despite the passage of nearly two centuries, Tocqueville would not be surprised to find Americans plagued by “fake news.” In fact, he would probably be more surprised if we weren’t.
The Church herself knows the experience of “fake news,” which has been a particularly effective weapon in the hands of her enemies. Whether claims that the Apostles stole Our Lord’s body, or accusations of Christians being cannibals, idol worshippers, crusading marauders, supporters of slavery, haters of science, or enemies of sexual expression, fake news has always been a reality in the Church. This is because the Church herself is in the news business. She preaches the Good News of true freedom in Christ to all men. Her enemies attempt to twist the Good News and make it bad. Centuries may pass but the propaganda of fake news remains down to our day.
With all that experience, what can the Church teach us? First, that most of what passes for news in our culture is, in a certain sense, fake news. The Good News of the Gospel teaches us what news really is. Before there were four gospels, the Gospel was preached as an historical event. What made it news is that it forever changed the world. The world was forever different once the fiat of the young girl from Nazareth was spoken. No life would be left unchanged. Its affects may take some time to trickle down, but the world was no longer the same. That is real news.
What often passes as news is hardly earth shattering. We are promised “breaking news at 11” each night, and we tune in only to find out nothing has really changed. Because there are so many stories we lose the ability to decipher the monumental and the humdrum. We suspend judgment, not to wait for more information but to wait for the talking heads to tell us what to think. Instead of peddling truth, the media sell us a product and construct a narrative as to how reality should be. This suspension of judging is precisely at the heart of the grave mistake made by a number of shepherds when they quickly shoved their sheep under the bus by sharing the judgment of the media on the students from Covington, Kentucky.
The Church shows us that simply knowing that there is Bad News is enough. We don’t need details. As the Second Vatican Council taught, we have “a right to information” only insofar as it has a bearing upon us personally and according to justice and charity. We do not need to see everyone’s dirty laundry. This digital rubbernecking makes us all suspicious of one another at the expense of satisfying our fallen desire for the knowledge of good and evil. We must, as Christians, becoming discerning consumers of news media, asking “why do I need to know this?” If more Christians did this, then there would be less of it.
But there is also a positive aspect. While the U.S. has always been a media-driven culture, trust in the media has never been lower. This general spirit of mistrust creates a vacuum. And by entering this void, the Church has a tremendous opportunity. When I say “Church” I do not mean the institution or the hierarchy but the lay members of the Church. As the pillar and foundation of truth, the Church can slide in and create an environment where truth reigns and trust is restored. She uniquely has the capacity to read the signs of the times and present them in the light of eternity. This is why the Council Fathers called for establishing programs of training in communication at Catholic institutions of higher learning. These programs must remain distinctly Catholic. Those who are gifted at writing and speaking must put their gifts at the service of their fellow men and bring clarity and truth. Even those who are not and simply use social media have an opportunity to infuse the truth in charity into their interactions.
In a media-saturated culture, the phenomenon that is fake news is itself becoming news. Sources of truth are quickly drying up; many have grown cynical that truth can be found anywhere. The Church has a role here, as a means of reporting the news and how it relates to the Good News.
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