Statue of the Roman goddess Veritas outside the Supreme Court in Ottawa
“Truth, justice, and the American way.” Superman
“You can’t handle the truth!” Colonel Nathan Jessup (AKA Jack Nicholson)
“Truth or Consequences.” Bob Barker
“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Judge Judy’s Bailiff
Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth. Buddhah
“… and the truth will set you free.” Jesus
“In vino veritas.”
Have you always told the truth? Do you know truth when you see it? Is truth important to you? Most of us, if we are honest, will answer “No”, “Maybe?”, and “Yes” to these three questions.
These are questions for the ages. I believe that most of us do seek the truth. I also believe that most of us fail, not only to always be truthful, but also to be able to always recognize the truth.
As a child I remember clearly the lesson George Washington taught us so well, ” I cannot tell a lie, I cut down the cherry tree.” Then there was Honest Abe.
The bar is much lower now.
Defining truth is difficult enough (See the quotes above if you doubt this) but most people, myself included, seem to accept an, “I know it when I see it,” answer.
In my personal life I rely pretty much on experience and interactions over time. This holds true for people, organizations, and things I come in contact with.
Without disparaging any of them in this forum, I can tell you that I know at least some of the “truth” about Comcast, British automobiles, and my Marine Corps Drill Instructor Staff Sergeant D.C. Curran. The more I interact, the closer I come to “the truth”.
Second hand “word of mouth” evidence fills in well for other areas: “If you are taking math next session, Mr. Henderson explains math concepts more clearly than Mr. Wertz.”; “Ishtar is a terrible movie, don’t waste your money.”; or “You should really see St. Paul and the Broken Bones, great band.” The source of this second hand knowledge and my trust in them based on past experience is of course key here. We all have “trusted” people close to us who we can rely on as well as those who we must take with a healthy “grain of salt.”
On the bigger universal issues of life, my personal experience and the word of mouth of people I know personally only helps a little. I have been around a bit, and at 70 have met and interacted with thousands of people over my life time, but the world is huge and there are 7.5 + billion people whom I have never met or even seen. My sample size is way too small to draw any conclusions that could remotely lead to the truth on universal issues based solely on my personal experiences or even those second hand sources of people I know and trust.
And yet, I do believe I have a good understanding of the truth on many issues. Here are some samples:
The earth is round. The universe is 14 billion years old. Most people are kind and good. Some people are evil. Many people are ignorant. Fewer are stupid. Smoking causes cancer. The Patriots won the Super Bowl. President Lincoln was born in Kentucky and President a O’bama was born in Hawaii.
I assume almost all of you agree with me that these are true statements, but how do I know these to be true?
We all rely on sources for most of what we know to be True. I have never been to New Zealand, but I know that it is a beautiful magical place. I know this is true from talking to friends/relatives who have been there, from reading my parents’ National Geographic magazines as a child, and from watching all three of Peter Jackson’s Trilogy of the Rings movies which were filmed there.
I also bounce what these external sources tell me against my own experiences. For example, the vast majority of the people I know are not criminals and this jives with what I read about crime statistics world-wide from a variety of sources. Therefore I consider this to be true: most people are good.
It gets trickier to identify the truth when I have no direct experience and/or when there are competing versions of the facts, the infamous “Alternative Facts”. Not only does it get “trickier” to tell the truth when sources disagree, it also becomes critical to both my individual concepts of reality and to the freedoms I have enjoyed having been born in a democracy. Tyrants hate the truth and it is in short supply in countries they rule.
So what sources to do you rely on Jim?
I’m glad you asked, and I will provide a list for your consideration, comment, condemnation, or concurrence a little later on in this post.
But first I want to explain the criteria I use to evaluate news/information sources. I grew up as a Presbyterian preacher’s kid with two well-read and educated parents who lived the 10 Commandments (especially the one about not lying) but who were realists who also were extremely accepting of other religions and acutely aware of the foibles of humans.
I was fortunate also to have had a very good public school education at Swarthmore High School that stressed critical thinking skills. This background, along with a stint in the Marines, prepared me well for my undergraduate and graduate studies and subsequent career in advertising, marketing, and public relations. Although I never held a job as a reporter for an independent news outlet, I learned through my work experience to greatly appreciate the role these professionals play in a democracy.
As a PR person for both the government (The Army & the VA) and corporate America (Safeco Insurance), I was paid to present information in a way that benefited the organization I was representing. Contrary to some opinions, this can (and should) be done ethically, focusing on the positive, but always being factual and truthful.
The independent press has a vital role to play in questioning the actions of anyone in power in both the private and public sectors. One can’t rely solely on PR or advertising to make purchase or voting decisions. The organization being represented may or may not be straight shooters but, even if they are “good guys”, they are only going to give you those parts of “the truth” that help them meet their organizational objectives. The press needs to ask probing questions and openly challenge statements made by organizations and especially those made by politicians.
I was taught, and believe, that news organizations must rigorously research the issues they are reporting on and include multiple sources and relevant opinions. This rigor is not always followed by some members of the press, and of course, we all make mistakes. Good news sources, however, occasionally make mistakes but then own up to them. They also hire people who have been professionally trained as journalists or who have earned their stripes by working their way up in the field. Bad news sources never admit mistakes, even when they are blatant.
Multiple sources are vital in decision making. No one source provides a well-rounded view.
Even though I jump around a lot, here are news sources I trust and listen to with some regularity along with a brief synopsis of each:
NPR – Hourly News is pretty concise. Programing is varied, but tends to be a little high brow and sometimes boring. Lots of human stories/slice of America stuff.
KIRO News/Talk Radio (Seattle) – News is straight up, talk includes both progressive (Dave Ross) and conservatives (Dory Monson) and one show (Tom and Curly) that includes both a progressive and a conservative as co-hosts.
There are similar news oriented radio stations in most major markets. Stations that focus on “news” over “talk” are much more reliable sources. Most carry one of the national/international news sources such as CBS Radio News or BBC radio news for their hourly news updates.
PBS – The first half hour of Newshour is really good – I miss Gwen Ifel (RIP) but Judy Woodruff is still pretty good. Shields and Brooks have thoughtful commentary on Fridays.
CBS – Best general morning news available – Today Show and Good Morning America are too much fluff. 60 Min. still worth watching, but the on air personalities are really old :-).
BBC – Good world-wide view. Very balanced, mostly straight up reporting.
NBC – Watch local and national stations in both Gettysburg (WGAL) and Seattle (KING) – Meet the Press is solid look at political issues/opinions.
ABC – For some reason I don’t usually watch this – when I have it seems pretty reliable.
CBC – I don’t watch this as much as I should. The Canadians seem to have a very balanced view of most issues.
MSNBC – Generally factual, but selects stories consistent with progressive beliefs -Sort of a mirror of FOX NEWS in that it is selective in what it covers and is more opinion than hard news. I usually agree and find them informative, but am cautiously skeptical.
FOX NEWS – Generally factual, but selects stories consistent with right leaning audience beliefs. Blurred lines between news and opinion – mostly the later. I don’t usually agree, but it is important to hear what their ideas/positions are as they have a very devoted audience that apparently listens to nothing else. Chris Wallace on Sunday morning is very fair and worth listening too.
CNN – They get carried away with sensational stories and tend to run them ad nauseum, but generally factual news reporting. CNN calls Trump out continually, but the points they make are generally questions that need to be answered. They got creamed by Trump in recent Internet wrestling match video he promoted on Twitter, but somehow the network was able to stay on the air (The “fight” is on YouTube).😀
C-Span – Unedited direct political news – I like it, but it is often boring and hard to watch for very long.
John Oliver – Political opinion cloaked as comedy based on hard news. Oliver is a comedian with very detailed and informative stories on a wide range of issues. Left leaning. Very funny and self deprecating. On HBO so limited access although clips are often on UTube.
WSJ – Great general news coverage – they really go into detail and are very nuanced. Editorially a little more conservative than me, but I respect their logical arguments. When in Seattle I get the “real” paper version – they provide much content to take in each day.
NYT – Deep Dive, not as much business/financial news as WSJ – Generally left leaning editorially, but they busted Hillary on the e-mail server. Marianne has an online subscription she lets me see. They have made factual errors in the past but always correct their mistakes.
USA Today – Pretty much straight up news reporting leaning to the easy-to-read. Editorials clearly identified as such and they usually provide opposing views from reputable sources. You can keep up to date at a basic level without spending too much time reading. Also can’t beat the price online – free.
Seattle Times – One of the few locally owned newspapers left in America (See warning signs below). I get the Sunday paper version and then they let me access the full paper online daily.
Time – The only weekly left that is actually printed on paper, RIP Newsweek & US News and World Report. Pretty fair and balanced, traditionally more conservative than Newsweek, which still has an online presence.
The Economist – Absolutely excellent analysis with a world view. Expensive and I can only afford to subscribe periodically when I get copies via airline points or read at the library.
Facebook – Good for entertainment and marginally OK for opinions, but I only respond to people I know personally. I don’t take anything on Facebook that is “Shared” at face value – I am much more interested in original content/ideas from people I actually know. I view this as a form of word of mouth but much more suspect. Reading what others find interesting is illuminating. Keep in mind that “illumination” is what helps us see the cockroaches.
Wikipedia – I have found it to be pretty consistent and reliable. If the article is controversial they address this. And there are pretty good original source listings on most articles, and if there are not, it is well noted.
I must confess, this is a weak spot for me, as I don’t read very many. Currently reading “Tyranny” by that my sister gave me for my birthday. I should do more here.
Lies and misconceptions.
If you believe anything National Enquirer or The Onion, I suggest you reconsider your rational. I find both of these are in their own way entertaining. The Onion is funny because it is classic satire. Laughing at The Enquirer brings out a darker side of me as I find myself secretly making fun of the people who believe it.
More dangerous to our democracy are the extremist views that pose as legitimate news outlets but which do not adhere to journalistic practices such as verification of sources and facts. These outlets primarily deal in conspiracy theories and rumors that are popular with their selective audiences. This includes outlets such as the Communist Party (cpusa.org) and It’s Going Down (Anarchist News) on the far left and Brietbart and Info wars on the far right. They disregard or distort the truth and disregard the traditional rigors of journalists. They exist solely to promote a set of political views. They are essentially just propaganda.
I reject the concept of fake news that President Trump uses to try to delegitimization any news outlet that questions his actions. All presidents complain about the press not being “fair.” Obama, W, and Clinton all complained about the news for focusing on what they were doing wrong or for underestimating their successes. Well, that is kind of the point of an independent press. As Truman once said, “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”
The idea that “the main stream media” is in cahoots and overly liberal leaning is unsubstantiated. This assumption is based on what evidence? These main stream media outlets were extremely helpful to Trump giving him coverage well beyond that given his opponents, just ask John Kasich. All news media except NPR and PBS are for-profit businesses owned or controlled by .01% billionaires who clearly have much to gain from a more conservative agenda, especially in the area of taxes. So the idea that these media businesses are “left leaning” is bogus.
Fortunately these wealthy owners recognize that, at least up untill now, many Americans will pay to get “real news”. And there is that pesky First Amendment that so far has kept the press free to report and or express opinions that the political powers that be don’t like. Controversy sells and therefore it behoves media owners to let journalists “do their thing” and seek out politicians who are liars or crooks or who misuse their power. There are plenty to choose from in all political parties.
Do Facts = The Truth?
Clearly half truths, lies, and deceit will never lead to any “Truth” other than the truth that the person espousing them is a deceitful lier. Using reliable sources, fact checking if you will, will help wean out the garbage but even then you can’t equate “facts” with the “truth.” The truth is much deeper and requires mastery of an almost lost art: Thinking.
Critical Thinking Works
Getting to the “truth” requires using facts within a context of values and a logical analytical system. Let me give you an example using paraphrases of some recent seemingly contradictory economic news I have read in the Wall Street Journal:
“The value of the dollar is significantly down since the beginning of the year.”
“The stock market is significantly up since the beginning of the year.”
So is the economy getting better or worse? You can’t really get to the “truth” about the economy from either of these two statements of fact. A weak dollar helps exporters and hurts consumers. A rapidly rising stock market can indicate economic strength or unwarranted speculation that can lead to a depression. An understanding of the context of the facts is essential.
The answer to the larger questions of life require a very broad understanding of history, of the interrelationships of systems, of the potential for false equivalencies or incorrect/incomplete measurements, and healthy doses of that seemingly long lost value, wisdom.
I took a course in logic once and that helps. The “if /then arguments”, “fallacies”, “assumptions”, “conclusions”, and “paradoxes’, and other tools/aspects of logical thinking all contribute to my understanding. In real life, however, many people disregard logical principles and twist them to fit their pre-conceived ideas. Aristotle must be turning over in his grave these days.
You or I will never find the truth on a bumper sticker, a tweet, a headline, a campaign slogan, a FaceBook post, a newspaper article, or in a book, not even The Bible. To find the truth we have to think long and work hard. Even then there will always be some doubt.
Doubt, however, is not all that bad as it is a really good indicator of honesty and integrity. Beware of people who have no doubt – they are not very likely to be truthful.
I will continue to seek the truth even though it is at times a fleeting concept. I trust that you will do the same.