Things Happen

Things happen.

We don’t always know about them, of course—not right when they occur, and sometimes not ever.

Trees topple loudly in the forest all the time when no one is present, waves smash spectacularly on solitary shorelines, birds plummet exhausted from the sky to die on uninhabited barrens.  And nobody is there to bear witness.

waves-crashing-between-rocks-6

It has ever been that way, from the first appearance of our human species until the present day.  Things happen, even when we do not know.

But that truth has become increasingly hard for many folk to accept.  In this age in which we live—one of marvellous, instantly-accessible, graphic, digital reality—it has become easy instead to believe that, unless we are told something happened, or see it on our screens, or experience it first-hand, it did not occur.

If it’s not up and viral on the web, if we aren’t personally in the loop, it cannot have happened.

How foolish we have become!

devices

And there is another problem.  Much of the information we avidly soak up from our handheld devices is misleading—sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately so.  Too many users, alas, are ill-equipped to assimilate the plethora of information assailing us, to differentiate, to assess, to form coherent conclusions about it all.

Today, many of us assume if it is up and viral on the web, bringing us personally into the loop, it must certainly have happened.

So, what is real and what is fake?  Hemingway wrote, …there is no one thing that’s true.  It’s all true.  And, in many ways, his observation has proven accurate—at least in the sense that it’s all there in front of us, waiting for us to choose from it.

There is a problem with that, though—one associated with our all-too-human tendency to embrace those opinions we are already in agreement with, and to reject those to which we have a preconceived aversion.

Don’t bother me with facts! we seem to say.

Unfortunately, even so-called facts can be fabricated by malevolent purveyors of misinformation, leaving us even more confused and more susceptible to manipulation.  That may not be overly-problematic if we’re being influenced to buy one brand of toilet tissue over another, for example; as an aside, a friend once told me, “On the (w)hole, they’re all pretty good!”

But it might be calamitous if we are being callously misled about the relative merits of one political leader over another.

Political_Banner

Which of these two imaginary politicos would be more palatable to the average voters, do you suppose?  The one who tells them exactly what they want to hear, who panders to their fears and prejudices, even if (s)he has no intention of fulfilling the empty promises?  Or the one who dares speak about the looming climate crisis, for instance, despite knowing the warnings might fall on deaf ears among the electorate?

Which of the two would be more favoured to win, the one who croons the siren-song of making things better—the way they used to be—or the one who tells of the hard slog ahead to deal with climate change, the existential crisis of our time?

The answer, I suspect, is the person who most-closely approximates the baked-in attitudes and ideas of us who are the voters.  Or the majority of us, anyway.  The relative merits of the candidates’ positions come secondary to that.

Facts no longer seem to matter because, while they used to be considered unassailable, almost sacrosanct, they are today viewed as permeable and malleable.  Where they used to be built on a rock foundation, they stand today on shifting sand.

Facts are, in this worldwide web of deceit and falsity, whatever any shill or charlatan wants us to believe they are.

But in a way, none of this matters for the planet.  Not really.  For, in spite of what we are told about this critical issue of our time—whether it’s the truth or a lie, whether we heed or ignore it—there is one fundamental reality that does not change.

Things happen.  Whether we choose to know about them or not.

Glaciers shrink and shed meltwater all the time when no one is present, permafrost thaws in the isolated, wind-swept tundra, animals disappear from our planetary menagerie, never to be seen again.  And too many of us choose to look away, refuse to listen to those who are compelled to bear witness.

The planet will go on, regardless.  But what of us, wrapped in our imperious cloak of superiority?  Will humankind survive?

Things happen.

reaper

Warning! Discretion is Advised

Many cable television programs my wife and I watch are preceded by a statement like this, usually delivered in a weighty baritone as the words appear on the screen:

WARNING

The following program may contain scenes of violence,

nudity, strong language, and adult themes.

It is intended for mature audiences only.

Viewer discretion is advised.

The warnings are so prevalent, we hardly notice them.  As adults of reasonably sound mind, we’re confident in our ability to choose what to watch, based on our own sense of what is acceptable.

But there is no question that these programs are not appropriate for children.

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Similarly, among the books I’ve written and published, there are four novels, crime thrillers, that are not suitable for children, given the graphic nature of some of the situations depicted.  Such scenes are not presented for gratuitous reasons; they are necessary to the stories’ authenticity and credibility.  Consequently, I include the following statement on the copyright page of each book:

This book contains adult language and mature themes.

Reader discretion is advised.

Time was, such warnings would have been unnecessary.  Not because there were no programs or books unsuitable for children; those have always been around.  But there were rules and boundaries designed to protect youngsters from exposure to them—sometimes established and enforced by parents, sometimes by government edict, sometimes by purveyors and sellers of the material.

I can remember there being ‘prime-time programs’ that aired only after I had gone to bed.  And I remember books on high shelves in libraries, for adults only.  I understood and rarely questioned why those were not for me.

Of course, there were loopholes.  Just as enterprising children have always found ways to obtain cigarettes, or to sneak into movie theatres, so also were they able to gain exposure to off-limits programs and books.  Some parents were more lax than mine, so staying overnight with a friend whose folks were out for the evening, for example, might allow an exploration of forbidden territory.  I was amazed to discover how many of my friends’ fathers had stashes of Playboy magazine, supposedly securely hidden from eager, adolescent eyes.

But for the most part, we were sheltered from violence, nudity, and profane language by the social safety-net around us.  We were allowed to discover the adult world in our own good time; and when it confused us, as it often did, we had parents or older friends to help us make sense of it all.

The advent and exponential growth of the global internet over the past three decades has wrought quite a change.  Today’s children (at least those in the developed world) have easy access to e-mail, instant messaging, social networking sites, online games, blogs and forums, interactive video calls, and everything else the worldwide web has to offer.  And it offers a lot, including all the mature-theme stuff that once upon a time was shielded from impressionable minds.

As a writer, I am immensely grateful for the plethora of knowledge the internet makes available to me at the keyboard I haunt—most of it free, accurate, and up-to-date.  I am my own researcher, able to pick and pluck knowledge from an endless number of sources, information which informs the stories I write.  I am nowhere near as intelligent or informed as a reading of those books might imply; but the internet allows me to appear that I am (or so I hope my readers might believe).

The internet, therefore, is not an evil empire in my opinion.  Yes, it’s a living entity, in that it evolves and adapts to the world around, but it has no sentient ability.  It’s just there.  In Latin, hoc est, ideo est—it exists; therefore, it is!

internet

So no, my worry is not that the internet has become an integral part of our lives.  Rather, my concern is with its accessibility to young people who are singularly unprepared to deal with everything it offers.  One doesn’t need to visit the so-called dark web in order to find examples of unspeakable violence, including torture and murder; or graphic pornography, including misogyny and bestiality; or blatant xenophobia, including racism and bigotry.  It’s all available through home computers for anyone to access.

If you doubt that, try surveying the video games that are offered to anyone with access to a credit card.  Many are educational and fun, it’s true; but so many others are extremely violent, the pain and consequences of which are not felt by the gamer who is experiencing the mayhem vicariously.  Don’t like that guy?  Blow him away!

Or take a digital stroll through online blogs and websites that espouse all manner of intolerance and hatred, spewing vitriol and calls-for-action against targeted groups.  Don’t like those people?  Lock ‘em up!

And after you’ve looked at these sites, consider the effect that repeated exposure to them might have on the pliable mind of a ten-year-old, for example.  We hear too often these days about ‘home-grown terrorists’ who attack innocent people, including children in schools and worshippers in churches and mosques.  And in so many cases, they are exactly that—home-grown, shaped and motivated by their insidious and lonely online pursuits.

So how can this exposure of children to the unsavoury aspects of the internet be stopped?  What is the answer?  Censorship?

In our democratic society, with its sacrosanct belief in free speech, censorship is a dirty word.  And how could it be accomplished, anyway?  Would issuing warnings like this have any discernible effect?

WARNING

The internet contains sites featuring extreme violence, including

murder; hateful language, including racist and religious pejoratives;

misogyny, including rape and mutilation; xenophobic representations, including

torture and enslavement; and other similar depictions intended to titillate and amuse.

It is intended for mature, autonomous, and socially well-adjusted audiences only.

User discretion is advised.

I think not.  In fact, I believe it must come back to what it’s always been—the nurturing of young minds by caring and conscientious parents, family and friends, and teachers.  And these guardians of children (and the children themselves) need to know that it’s okay to impose limits, to set boundaries, and to refuse permissions.  Not forever, and not to the point of stifling curiosity and the desire to learn.  But for long enough to allow children’s brains to experience childhood and adolescence before being exposed to the more unsavoury aspects of adulthood.

kids

In his poem, The Rainbow, William Wordsworth wrote, “The Child is father of the Man…”, widely interpreted to mean that who we become as adults is irrevocably determined by how we are shaped as children.

I often consider who today’s youngsters, children of the internet and all it proffers, will be when they are grown.

And I wonder, if I were still here, whether I would like them.

Tell It Like It Is

Tell it like it is!

Grammatically incorrect ‘though it may be, that sentence succinctly describes the prime duty of every responsible journalist.  Consumers of our many print and digital mainstream media (MSM) outlets have the right to expect balanced, accurate reporting from them.  How else will we citizens learn about events transpiring in the world around us?

There are currently several threats confronting trustworthy journalism, however.  The first centres on how we are to define the words responsible, balanced, and accurate.  Each of us may have our own definition, but ours might well differ from someone else’s.  Who is to say whose version is correct?  In an environment where media entities range from the far-right of the political spectrum (eg. Breitbart or Sean Hannity) to the far-left (eg. New Yorker or Slate), woe betide the consumer who does not comprehend the disparity in the balance and accuracy of their reporting.  Each of them defends their coverage of the news as responsible, balanced, and accurate, so it falls to us to ensure we are knowledgeable of their respective stances.

Almost every media outlet has its own bias; the responsible ones make their position clear to their followers, who can then interpret what they’re receiving through that filter—thus becoming informed citizens.  But those outlets that mask their editorial stances encourage a rising mistrust of all MSM among the citizenry, who, as a consequence, begin to paint every one of them with the same brush.

Both dishonest journalism and a widespread mistrust of journalism are bad for the survival of democracy.

Another threat to be taken seriously arises from the deteriorating economic conditions facing segments of the industry.  With the rise of digital platforms across the internet, and with almost-universal access available to so many people, the established print outlets are faced with declining revenues from shrinking advertising and circulation.  These losses are resulting in layoffs of journalists and closing of newspapers, with a concomitant reduction in comprehensive coverage of local issues so important to us.

It is at the local level where much of what we citizens need to know is reported.  If all media outlets were global in scope, such as those found on the internet, who would inform us of problems facing us in our own communities and neighbourhoods?  One of the most important, yet undervalued, roles of local media is investigative journalism, inquiring on our behalf into questionable practices by government and private enterprises.

Who, other than those directly affected, would have known of the tainted-water scandals in Walkerton, Ontario or Flint, Michigan, for example, if local media had not persevered in their probes?  Who would be reporting chemical spills or pipeline leaks, if not responsible journalists?  Who else can rouse governments to action around contraventions of regulatory inspections of dairy- or meat-manufacturing facilities, for instance, that result in danger to the public?  Who will rail against the delays in bringing accused felons to trial in an overcrowded, underfunded court system—delays that result in the staying of charges and release of those persons because their rights have been violated?

Concerned citizens’ groups can’t do any of these things if they are not first made aware of the issues by the journalists who find and pursue them.  If we don’t have responsible investigative journalism at the local level, who will watch the watchers on our behalf?

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A third threat, perhaps the most serious, is posed by government.  The threat may arise from a well-intentioned, but misguided, attempt to bolster the media by subsidizing them through the public purse in order to maintain local coverage.

Or, more ominously, it may come from an unbridled attempt by government to discredit or even censor media outlets that don’t adhere to an ideological, doctrinal line.

The subsidizing of MSM outlets from public tax dollars, which at first blush could be seen as helpful in this era of declining revenues, is a two-edged sword.  While an infusion of revenue might well enable local media outlets to remain viable, thus allowing them to continue their reporting of the news, that support could come with strings attached.

What happens, for example, when the reporting of an issue is contrary to the government’s position on that issue?  Does the funding suddenly dry up?  Or does the coverage change?  Either option is a blow to a healthy democracy.

It’s a well-established maxim, after all, that (s)he who pays the piper calls the tune.  It would take a highly-ethical party on either side to resist the temptation to bully the other, or to refrain from caving in.

Censorship or assaults on the integrity of the media are equally evil, if not more so.  And even in prospering democracies, both can raise their ugly heads.  Just the other day, a highly-placed official in the recently-installed American government referred to the MSM as “the opposition party”, and said they should “keep its (sic) mouth shut.”  Although that official is the founder of one of those far-right news outlets (Breitbart)—which might lead one to expect such a stance—the tacit threat from one so close to the seat of power is chilling.

 

     [Photo Credit: Copyright © 2013 Universal Press Syndicate]

 

As I’ve written in previous posts, it is one of the expectations of the MSM that they must act as guardians of perhaps the most precious of all our rights, the right to free speech.  And a closely-related tenet in a democratic society is citizens’ right to a free press, unconstrained by government interference or intimidation.

When a government claims that media outlets disagreeing with the party line are dishonest, fake, and disgraceful, publishing deliberately false information, and involved in a running war with the government, there is a clear and present danger to those cherished rights.

In the face of such attacks, it is incumbent upon citizens to defend the media, lest we lose them—whether for economic reasons or other, more insidious, pretexts.  And we must defend all of them, far-right, far-left, and every outlet in between, because they all contribute to the dialogue that generates and nourishes a flourishing democracy.

Additionally, it is every citizen’s responsibility to make him- or herself aware of the widely-discrepant editorial leanings of those outlets in order to make sense of what they are reporting.  Otherwise, the media will be rendered unable to fulfil their essential mandate, which is—

Tell it like it is!

Free Speech? Free Press?

A cornerstone of democracy is the right to free speech, a principle perhaps best expressed in a 1906 work by the English writer, Beatrice Evelyn Hall, a statement often erroneously attributed to Voltaire:  I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

A second foundation of a democratic society, closely related to the first, is the right to a free press.  Newspapers as we know them made their first appearance in 17th century Europe, and in the mid-1700’s they were dubbed ‘the fourth estate’ by Edmund Burke, a British politician (the first three estates being those represented in parliament—the clergy, the nobility, and the common people).

Burke went so far as to describe this fourth estate as more important by far to the health of a nation than the other three, a sentiment echoed a hundred years later by Thomas Jefferson, author of the American Declaration of Independence, who wrote:  “…were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

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The invention of the telegraph greatly enhanced the spread of news across nations, and around the world.  Thanks to technology, reporters could file their stories from anywhere (traditionally ending them with the rubric – 30 –  a shorthand for End), assured that they could be read everywhere.

But why is it so important to a free society that its citizens have the right to speak their minds, and the right to access a free press, unrestricted by government censorship?  Especially today, in this age of unlimited entrée to digital social media.

The answer lies in the fact that until very recently, we have been able to trust our news sources to deliver truthful accounts of events in the world around us.  Most reliable outlets reported the facts as they happened, based upon the best information available.  Serious journalists regarded accuracy and bias-free reporting as sacrosanct.  Editorial beliefs were confined, for the most part, to the opinion pages, and op-ed viewpoints were included to ensure balance in the presentation of the news.

Throughout my lifetime, it has been relatively easy in our democratic nation to educate and inform oneself about the world in which we live by reading, listening, and watching a variety of news outlets, their spectrum of viewpoints providing a balanced picture, as accurate and verifiable as it is possible to be.

Today, however, anyone can report the news through a variety of social media, regardless of their qualifications (or lack thereof), degree of impartiality, sense of right and wrong, education, or bigotries.

As an example, have a look at the headlines below, from different decades, and decide how many (if any) were actually reported:

Titanic Torpedoed by U-Boat; Tragedy Covered Up by Admiralty

FDR Knew About Pearl Harbor; Allowed Attack to Mobilize War Effort

JFK, Marilyn Buried at Arlington; Lovers Reunited Under Eternal Flame

Lennon Survived Murder Attempt; Lies in Coma in New Jersey Hospital

Chinese Colony Established on Moon; China Claims Lunar Sovereignty, Alarms West

Now, before deciding about that first group, check out the next list:

 Elvis Sighted; Rock Legend Living in Wax Museum

Microsoft Patents Ones, Zeroes; Computer Industry in Freefall

Pope Francis Shocks World; Endorses Donald Trump for President

Would You Rather Your Child Had Feminism or Cancer?

Gay Rights Have Made Us Dumber; Time to Get Back in the Closet

Which of the two groups is the more credible, which the more ridiculous?

Well, as you may have guessed, none of the headlines in the first group ever surfaced in any news outlet; I made them up.  But, incredibly, every one of the second group has actually appeared in a newspaper or digital news source—many of which inhabit the social media universe.

social-media

That could strike one as funny, but there’s a serious consequence to the burgeoning glut of fake news stories.  Many readers, listeners, and viewers (let us hope most of them) have the wisdom and experience to differentiate between what’s real and what isn’t.  And to base their subsequent actions on those conclusions.

But increasing numbers of uneducated, unsophisticated, gullible consumers of information do not have the ability to separate truth from fiction in such stories.  They are, therefore, susceptible to the persuasive powers of those who purvey pernicious falsehoods, often for political or financial gain.

To one who is colour-blind, all the various hues may appear the same; to those who are media-illiterate, all news accounts may possess the same weight, the same degree of veracity.  And that being the case, which are paid the most attention?

Unfortunately, all too often the attention goes to the lurid, sensational, graphically-charged, and blatantly false packages, at the expense of the sober, dispassionate, accurate accounts a free society and informed citizenry needs.  And this is coming at a time when traditional newspapers are increasingly falling by the wayside, unable to financially survive in our digital communications world.

I see three possibilities if this trend continues, and two of them are alarming.  One is a persistent proliferation of fake news sources, many of which reap great financial rewards for their producers, and all of which contribute to the continued dumbing-down of our society.  Ignorance is greatly to be feared.

A second is the institution of censorship by governments worried about the loss of press freedom—or, more ominously, about the unbridled existence of propagandizing news outlets that would replace elected leaders with demagogues not concerned or constrained by democratic principles.  Censorship is also to be feared, for it is a death-knell for freedom of speech.

The best possibility, but less likely I fear, is a re-awakening on the part of citizens of countries such as ours to the importance of a free press; to the obligation we have to teach young people (and their media-illiterate elders) how to differentiate between the real and the fake; and to the absolute necessity of safeguarding both free speech and a free press if we are to preserve our democratic way of life.  No number of fact-checkers can ever substitute for an informed, discerning, and open-minded citizenry.

If we are unsuccessful, I believe, we shall arrive at the point where the last credible headline we shall ever see is:

– 30 –