There is little comfort in knowing that the crises we face in our political life today have been visited upon us before. It still helps to look back.
George Santayana was only half-right when he said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He might have added: “Even those who do remember the past sometimes fail to see its snaky arms reaching up behind them.”
The last sentence in Gatsby gets it just about right: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
In 2006, there was no global army of fact-checkers working systematically to hold the powerful accountable for their statements. But there were satirists, such as Stephen Colbert, who added “truthiness” — an adherence to our own preferred version of events — to the public lexicon. Its prophetic definition seems almost quaint in an era of “alt-right propaganda,” “alternative facts” and “fake news.”
What we need, now more than ever, is a public curriculum on news literacy — for adults. Educational programs on news literacy have grown brilliantly over the last decade, especially for high school and college students.
I am not talking here about trolls and conspiracy theorists. I am talking about grown-ups whose experiences have been so mediated by technology that they lack the vision to see the fake wizard standing behind that digital curtain.
I argued more than a decade ago that the antidote to truthiness is skepticism — an updated version of that old-fashioned newsroom “crap detector.” I believe that the antidote to gullibility is adult education capable of leading the susceptible out of an echo chamber of only congenial voices.
On two occasions in 2006, I was a guest on the Oprah Winfrey Show. I offered her a plan — an early version of a curriculum — on how well-intentioned citizens could develop the “critical thinking” skills necessary to manage messages from both government and the news media so that the ideal of an “informed citizenry” could become closer to reality. She endorsed it on her website.
This column, an expanded version of the strategic list I offered Oprah Winfrey, first appeared on this site on Oct. 12, 2006.
For the second time this year, I’ve had a front row seat to an important discussion, sponsored by Oprah Winfrey, about the nature of truth-telling in America.
In January, I watched her pillory the prevaricating memoirist James Frey.
And last week, I joined her conversation with New York Times columnist Frank Rich, whose best-selling book “The Greatest Story Ever Sold” describes a government that spindles the verifiable world for its narrow political purposes.
With a mix of Orwell and Huxley, and with skills sharpened as a theater critic, Rich looks beyond governance to America itself, a culture he sees as besotted with self-indulgence, sensationalism and celebrity, where “reality” is increasingly cast, scripted, costumed, produced, and staged.
As reporter and critic, Rich pays more attention to what is wrong than what we can do about it, ending his book with the depressing thought that American culture will continue to be exploited by master manipulators from either political party “if Americans don’t start to take it back.”
But how, beyond the vote, do citizens take their culture back? It’s here that Oprah is more persuasive than Rich. Her curriculum is a kind of national conversation on the nature of truth, a course of study leading citizens to critical literacy exercised in a common meeting place.
Citizens must want to be smarter about how to interpret the messages we encounter every day in government, in media, in the workplace, in business and advertising. As I prepared for my appearance, I offered these steps as a start:
- Don’t just consume the message of advertisers, especially political advertisers. Talk to your children and to other adults about the hidden messages they contain.
- Find three political writers who represent the right, the left, and the middle. Consult them to help you sort through political issues and media messages.
- Join with others in your community to analyze how you are being served or disserved by your local news media. As famed editor Gene Roberts said about one newspaper: “You can throw it up in the air and read it before it hits the ground.” What does your community need in the form of coverage that it is not getting? Who owns the news companies in your community? Are they in the news business to serve the public or to maximize their profits?
- Look for role models of candor and accountability, people in public life who have proven to be reliable over time. Look for folks within a movement or political party who have the courage to speak, on occasion, against the interests of their own party.
- Recognize the power of framing as a communication device. People may be telling you the truth, but only a part of the truth. They may be framing events to focus on some themes, but not others. In the immigration debate, for example, the “safety of our borders” is a frame, but so is “America opens its arms to immigrants,” and so is “there are jobs in America that Americans will not do.”
- Learn to recognize the manipulation of language and images. Read George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” which argues that language abuse leads to political abuse, and vice versa. Be skeptical of any speaker or writer who calls into question a critic’s loyalty to the country.
- Learn the differences between forms of political persuasion that appeal to your reason as opposed to those that appeal to your fears or passions. Beware of slogans. They are a substitute for critical thinking.
- A key value of journalism is to make important things (like health care) interesting for the public. Beware of attempts to make interesting things, such as lurid crimes, seem important — when they are not.
- Pay attention to people who are willing to change their minds — as long as they are not addicted to doing so.
- Prefer people who want to have a vigorous conversation to those who want to shout at each other.
- Be not seduced into thinking that every hot-button issue requires to you be on one side or the other. There may be a middle ground. Don’t be afraid to be puzzled or uncertain about an issue. It’s OK to be working to make up your mind.
- Get off the couch. Join a club. Volunteer. Sing in the choir. One way not to be fooled by political or media manipulation is to learn from direct experience, from reality and not reality TV.
- In an age of celebrity culture, pay more attention to people for what they do than for who they are.
- Be a skeptic, but not a cynic. A skeptic doubts knowledge. A cynic doubts moral goodness. The cynic says, “All politicians are liars,” or “All journalists have a hidden bias.” The skeptic says, “That doesn’t sound right to me. Show me the evidence.”
- Support school programs that help young people analyze and criticize media messages. Students should learn the values of the First Amendment, and, through their reading, writing, and speaking, practice those values. Freedom of expression means nothing if you lack the means to express yourself.