With some frequency during the last year, I have been waking in the night mid thought. It always happens during those loneliest of hours too – 2 to 4 AM, though it’s never worry nagging me awake but curious ideas and questions.
It happened just three nights ago. One second I was in the restorative depths of unconscious slumber and the next I was fully alert thinking …
“What is a fact? What is news? Can anyone really claim to be unbiased? Are facts only facts because we determine what they are based on our biases?”
BOOM! wide awake and in a decent debate all by myself. I did see the humour in that. I remember grabbing my phone to check the time and it was something like 3:17 AM. I lay there considering the questions again, wishing there was someone to discuss it with.
I’d been reading about anchorman Brian Williams not long before I went to bed and about the whole fiasco surrounding his tall tale telling and spinning of yarns as the years of his career rolled by.
I had commented on @ansonmount’s Twitter thread about Brian Williams a couple of hours before lights out. I typed that I find a lot of news to be filled with biased story telling and opinionated anchors and that I wish I could simply be given facts and allowed to think for myself.
As soon as I’d hit send on the tweet I was frustrated and unhappy with my comment. Twitter is not the place to have a proper discussion. A tweet is so inept in its ability to capture and express all that subjects like that deserve. That irritation obviously stuck in my head and somehow got loud enough to rouse my sleeping brain.
What is a fact? Is there or are there any universal facts that everyone can agree on? And even if a journalist is completely pure in their intention to tell a story factually, without bias and they present different opinions on the topic through thorough research and quality interviews, HOW they choose to frame that story, in what order they choose to share the differing opinions, and the colour and intensity of the language they use to craft the sentences all ooze bias one way or another.
When I say, “Just give me facts and let me think for myself …” Well, welcome to the conundrum! Let two other journalists tell the same story and suddenly it might not sound like the same thing at all and you’re left wondering who’s telling the truth. Maybe they all are. Perhaps none of them is.
Who owns the media outlet that each journalist works for? What are their political, economic, religious and philosophical leanings? What is their gender, age, social status and skin colour? How does that determine consciously or unconsciously who gets hired to report for their company and how they write or tell the news? And of the billions of stories that could be told in the news, how are they deciding what is worthy for my eyes and ears should I choose their product?
“Sufferin’ succotash!” It’s enough to make a person do nothing but watch Looney Tunes for the rest of their life.
I could be a better consumer of the news by being proactive in searching out articles and publications and podcasts etc. from sources that I normally wouldn’t listen to. That’s harder than it sounds. We all have certain ways of thinking and believing and enjoy digesting information that reinforces those beliefs. It is my assumption that is difficult for most of us to be disciplined and spend time considering opinions and facts that don’t jibe with our own. It’s tough to remain open-minded to that which automatically offends our senses or goes against our values and mores. Yet, wouldn’t that also be the best way to gain more balance and become more informed on any subject? Might it also be the way to increase our tolerance for and understanding of people, who we generally misunderstand, disagree with or even fear?
Gosh, I’d have loved to talk with someone about it that night. I pulled up Anson Mount’s Twitter handle to see what other responses there had been on the thread and noticed that he’d checked out for a holiday.
HA! Jerk! Post deep thoughts about society for people to ponder and then unplug. Grrr… but I loved that too because I live in the woods and I love to routinely unplug so I couldn’t even be mad at him. I often think the only truths are Nature’s. That’s probably why it’s the only place I don’t feel like I have to control anything because the most successful and content way through life in the wild is to learn how to adapt and accept what’s coming at you in the moment whether it’s joy-filled or not.
Anyhow, I got myself back to sleep about an hour later, but the issues of what are facts and bias and news kept running through my mind the last few days.
As I learned about the deaths of Bob Simon and David Carr, and read about the extraordinary lives they’d lived and contributions they made to journalism, I asked my mid night questions again and again and think about how to consume news less lazily so that I might be a more connected world citizen.
I want to read more about Simon. He has been a staple on the television throughout my life; one of those voices you recognize from another room just as sure as a duckling knows its mother’s quack from across the pond, but I never connected the dots between all of the conflicts and issues he’d covered to him. I was too young to appreciate a huge portion of the body of his work, but just imagine all that he has seen. Imagine all of the world views he encountered through his dispatches abroad and at home, and the depths of depravity and height of humanity he witnessed as he criss-crossed the globe.
Carr. I am sad to say, I only learned about him a night or two before he died when he spoke to Anderson Cooper about Brian Williams. I was so intrigued that I began to research his work.
I think about Carr’s willingness to make space for forgiveness and second chances for the Brian Williams of the world because he was shown forgiveness and allowed to succeed after living a life – not just less than he could be, but who apparently lived it with negligent, selfishness and with disregard for others. But he made what appears to be a brilliant, above board comeback and never forgot that others showed him grace.
Both men would have been fantastic to talk to about these things. Maybe Brian Williams will see an opportunity in his fall from grace. I think he’d be a stellar ethics instructor for budding journalists. As Carr said to Anderson Cooper about Williams’ situation, nobody wants to be the boring guy in the room. That might have been Williams’ ego weakness. He seems to be a true journalist a heart, but with a very human need to belong and be liked. The story telling that followed the reporting spun into the classic biggest-fish-I-ever-caught stories as the years passed by. Who of us hasn’t done that? The difference is that he is (rightfully, I think) held to a higher standard because he has been entrusted to share other peoples’ experiences, which were so often heroic and/or heart-wrenching.
I still find it hard to believe that Williams was intentionally deceitful. Yet even if he was, it seems that Carr would still say, give the guy another chance if he comes back with a pure heart and dedication to the journalistic calling. I’ll work on that when Williams emerges from his self-imposed isolation.
As I learn more about aid worker Kayla Mueller, killed during her captivity by ISIS, and her seemingly limitless capacity for compassion and determination to seek justice for those who needed an advocate, I ask what I can do to increase my well of understanding about others who seem to be wholly unlike me, and I challenge myself to be more committed to speaking up in the face of injustice.
Being intentional about choosing multiple sources of news to read or listen to and educating my mind is a good start. Questioning what I read and hear, especially when it’s comfortable for me, is another step to making sure I am taking more than one side into consideration and not becoming complacent or blind to others’ truth. I don’t want to be one of those people who exist in arrogance, always assuming that I am right.
Maybe the universal fact is that all people will always have to agree to disagree on some things. And that’s okay so long as we make room for one another’s ideas to be heard and that we do so without causing one another harm.
Respect, Forgiveness, Compassion, Advocacy. Simon, Carr, Williams, Mueller.
A mantra for the curious mind.