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News You Can and Can't Trust - Opinion


When I was a child, my parents took me to Niagara Falls. My grandmother claimed she had seen Houdini go over the falls in a barrel. Who can you believe if not your grandmother? I believed Houdini went over Niagara Falls most of my life, until researching for a book, when I discovered Houdini had never gone over the falls. He almost did by accident while making a movie, when he lost control of a canoe, but almost doesn’t count as going over. If you want to believe he went over the falls, go ahead: no harm done.

Growing up, I was taught in grade school, junior and senior high, and even in junior college that Magellan circumnavigated the world. Only when working my way through all volumes of The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durrant did I discover that instead of returning to Europe as the first person to go around the entire world, he had instead died in Cebu in the Philippines. There is a monument where the foreign invader, unwisely in local island disputes, was killed. Friends have been there, not me. I suppose there is no harm in believing that someone went around the world when they didn’t.

But I was sent to a war based on mistaken information. That counts as fake news that hurts. Talk about fake news! And there is a lot of “fake” news going on right now that may be just as important to our country’s future.

How do falsehoods come to be accepted as fact? I will argue because people want them to be true or some folks cleverly create them to make us think they must be true.

The Internet is providing us with false and semi-false information at an astonishing rate and in real time, most of it political, coming in my opinion from people who wish to keep Americans divided and with an agenda to grind. I will give a few examples, but I could go on for pages before I suggest my solution.

  1. A photograph of a boatload of Syrian male refugees, looking rather rough around the edges, appeared with the caption that President Obama had allowed 5,000 Syrian refugees to arrive by ship in New Orleans. Skeptical Tim turned to Google to learn the photograph was taken not in New Orleans but somewhere in Hungary several years before. Dead false and raises our ire and fear about taking in refugees, who are (after all) refugees.

  2. A post claimed that flying the U.S. flag had been banned on college campuses. I asked the forwarder of this post for an example. He was able to provide one. This college campus took their flag down during a few days of turmoil on campus to protect it. Then the flag went right back up. Rest well, patriotic Americans, for your flag still flies over your college campuses. Snopes would rate this a mixture rather than false. I rate it a rank exaggeration.

  3. A person associated with a Confederate organization posted that Facebook planned to not allow any further images of Confederate flags to be posted. Checked this with Facebook itself. Not true, sayeth Zuckerberg. When I pointed out that Mark the Man Himself said this wasn’t so, I was told that it was true, no matter what good old Mark said. He was going to ban the Confederate flag anyway and I better stop messing with this crowd.

  4. A friend forwarded me a post that the national anthem was forbidden at a sporting event by someone or other. In this case, there were multiple games, the same day each with the national anthem performed, but for the last game of the day those in charge asked if the anthem could be omitted as the events was running over. Folks sang it anyway. Rest assured, liberal and conservative patriots. Liberals do sing the national anthem, we want it sung, and I know the words. Snopes would rate this a “Mixture.” I rate it an outright distortion.

  5. Roughly a half-dozen times a year I get a post that says, “Like if you want the Pledge of Allegiance in school.” This implies it is not in school. Or maybe that it is being proposed to take it out of schools. How dare those unpatriotic folks do this, probably those dang lefties, but rest assured, the Pledge is being said and will be said, and all these posts accomplish only the firing up of patriotic folks over a non-issue. There may be a small pocket of exceptions in some school districts, but nationwide the Pledge lives on.

  6. During the campaign an associate put a post on Facebook exaggerating Chelsea Clinton’ income from The Clinton Foundation by a factor or ten. Although I pointed out to the associate that the first post was incorrect, the same person continues posts from the same source.

  7. A post on the day of the election stated that The Clinton Foundation paid for Chelsea Clinton’s multi-million dollar wedding. Before I could check the facts, this post disappeared, with harm done, I am sure. People discouraged from going to the polls. Others avid to go vote against “crooked” Hillary. Just yesterday I saw a Snopes that rated this unproven. I certainly was unable to prove any of it.

The other day I was at the dermatologist having a biopsy of my earlobe. I see my dermatologist more than I see relatives, true news: because if you spend four hours a day in the great outdoors and tan yourself on Greek islands for three years during your youth your skin will produce nastiness. I respect my doctor, a smart man, so when he told me he was having trouble trying to figure out what news was real and what was not, I thought: Boy, are we in trouble in this country.

So I am going to suggest Tim’s crazy approach to this problem. You are free not to like it.

You may not approve of their editorial stances, but I believed the reporting in major newspapers of America is trustworthy. There are several reasons.

1.Those papers have a staff trained and educated in journalism, which includes methods of research. I would include in the group of must read if you want to be informed “The Wall Street Journal” and “The New York Times.” That is, if you can afford subscriptions to both of them. Or even one of them. And have the time to read them.

2.This is also true: nothing is worse for a journalist (or someone like me who publishes words) than a correction. Corrections screw up careers. They get you fired. They cost you work if you are freelancer. So you want to make sure it is right before you let it go.

3. Nothing is worse for an editor than to have an error slip through. This has the same consequences for editors as for writers – too many times and you get fired. Editors are trained in more than grammar.

4. Note that: I have started articles with prejudice in mind, but finished them with my mind changed. While its not the same, journalism (and I am not a trained journalist) is a little like the scientific method. You put up a hypothesis and then you try it out. If it doesn’t work, you try something else that fits the facts. Sometimes you gather the facts first. But you don’t slant facts, you learn from them.

5. Note that: Before any of my books or articles published, the contents were run by one or more people expert in areas I am not to check for and to improve their accuracy.

6. My skin doc was concerned about anonymous sources in news stories. I can understand this. The journalist and often the editor know the anonymous source or sources. There is usually a good reason for keeping that source unknown. Unfortunately I have had more than one good story killed because the editor wanted sources on the record. In the articles where this happened, my sources were people dependent on the government (state) for funding and felt they would lose funding (their livelihoods) if critical.

Suggestion 1: Don’t believe in something reported as news because it fits your political prejudices. If your perception forces you to believe news “facts” that sound wild without questioning them, then you need to learn to start questioning afresh.

Suggestion 2: Don’t trust news or posts from organizations without looking into who they are. Ask if they have an agenda to push, which in my mind automatically calls the source into question. Look these sites and organization up on Wikipedia to see how they formed and why, who owns them, and who funds them.

Suggestion 3: Trust Snopes and Politifact. If they are wrong, they lose their credibility, which is all they’ve got. Too many people on the right think they are leftwing. Not so. They give it to every body. Sign up for both of them. Like them on Facebook and follow them.

Suggestion 4: Don’t trust news from folks that have provided false information in the past. Duh.

Suggestion 5: Question news when you can - that’s your right, and the way things are going – your duty.

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