By Tim Hayes
The well-spoken, erudite, respected U.S. Senator from New York, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, uttered a few memorable sentences during his years serving under the Capitol Dome. But, as a one-time professional and ever-in-my-heart journalist, one of my favorite Moynihan-isms remained this gem:
“You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts.”
That statement had once been a source of bemusement. The cause of a chuckle, as Moynihan gave some pompous blowhard his verbal comeuppance for chipping away at the inviolable Wall of Truth in the Public Square. The mutually agreed-to standards of shared reality, commonly assumed facts, the bedrock basis from which logical argument must begin.
But I read that quote today and it makes me sad, angry, frustrated, and fearful.
That Wall of Truth has suffered an alarming number of cracks today. From accusations of “fake news” to the willful, joyful – but actually awful – practice of office-holders and policy-makers simply lying to the faces of their constituents with no sense of shame or even awareness that it is absolutely wrong to do so, the idea of a shared foundation of reality and truth sounds increasingly quaint. Old fashioned. Lame and foolish.
Jennifer Rubin, Washington Post opinion columnist, recently wrote that, “We’re at risk of losing not only a shared set of facts but also a uniform belief that there are such things as facts.”
How can this nightmare be? How did we get to such a dystopian place? Losing “a uniform belief that there are such things as facts?” Good God. Paging Mr. Orwell!
Naturally, I blame Facebook. And I have proof.
In her book, “Merchants of Truth,” former New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson does a marvelous job describing the ways in which online services like BuzzFeed, Vice, and Facebook helped speed the obliteration of print journalism. They did so by changing the very nature of news based on establishing a new fundamental objective.
Under the new paradigm, the purpose of news would no longer concern the dissemination of important, relevant information to a broad spectrum of readers, as assigned, written, and vetted by trained professional journalists. Instead, the purpose of news would be to identify key personality traits, assumptions, and preferences of readers, then feed them only those morsels of information that reinforced those traits and made those readers happy.
“The industry faced a dangerous dilemma,” Abramson writes. “If its artificial intelligence continued to improve, readers might get so used to having their worldview affirmed that they would lose their appetite for ideas that weren’t custom-tailored to their predilections.” And so it came to pass.
Later, she writes, “What made a story work was not its scope or its substance; as BuzzFeed had all but empirically proven, it was the extent to which the content had the power to make readers feel something.” This business strategy worked far beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. As clicks soared, so did advertising rates. And the beat goes on.
Suddenly, feelings overrode knowledge. It let people’s obligation to expand their understanding of the world off the hook. The purveyors of most of the information being consumed started with the notion that their readers had already made up their minds – and that all they had to do was reinforce those perceptions.
Or misperceptions. You know, the ones that would never, ever change, until that person drew his or her final breath. No hope of expanding understanding, context, an opposing viewpoint. Wait, no hope? More like no effort.
And there’s where the path to the disappearance of a commonly held standard of reality and truth really took off. People sorted themselves into social clusters, actually more like schools of thought and values and prejudices and beliefs. Nothing new there. But once inside those clusters, the only voices they heard, the only views expressed, the only ideas repeated, echoed their pre-selected set of truths as determined and issued by the news feeds on their cell phones. No dissention would or could be tolerated, because none could make it through the parapet protecting each particular crowd of like-minded thinkers.
And so the truth became whatever each cluster decided it would be. Among different sets of clusters, no one could agree on anything, least of all a shared reality. Just look at our two main political parties today, if you don’t believe me.
But, as we prepare to celebrate Independence Day and the notion of an informed electorate responsible for sustaining a system of self-government, there is hope. And it’s a solution not all that difficult to implement.
Put down the phone. Pick up a newspaper or magazine. Attend a meeting of your local governmental body or school board. Seek out opinion that differs from your frame of mind. Take back the responsibility of informing yourself, remaining open-minded, and weighing all of the available information before committing to a decision or action.
It’s okay to feel. But not to surrender your thinking in the process. Reality is real. There are commonly held truths in the world. But it’s up to each person to embrace the obligation to discover them.
You are indeed entitled to your opinion. But no one is entitled to his or her own facts. The truth is out there. Some algorithm won’t bring you the whole picture. Go find it for yourself. You’ll be glad you did. We all will.
Copyright 2019 Timothy P. Hayes