March 11: Isaiah and "Fake News"

Justice is turned back,
   and righteousness stands at a distance;
for truth stumbles in the public square,
   and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
   and whoever turns from evil is despoiled.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
   that there was no justice.
He saw that there was no one,
    and was appalled that there was no one to intervene.
Isaiah 59:14-16

Legend has it that the ancient Greek philosopher Diogenes wandered the streets of Corinth, carrying a lamp, searching for an honest man. As a Cynic, he didn’t believe he would ever find one. And he didn’t.

It sounds as if the Lord is on a similar quest in today’s reading from Isaiah. According to the prophet, there is no truth in the public square. This is the fundamental problem for Isaiah, the ultimate concern at the heart of Israel’s unjust state.

Truth and justice are interrelated concepts. You can’t have one without the other.

The last year of election campaigning has dealt a serious blow to the concept of “truth” in public discourse. The term “fake news” has become a regular feature of our politcal lexicon, as both sides have criticized the sources of various so-called “journalistic” organizations. An adviser to a president has offered the idea of “alternative facts”; a press secretary has repeated, and supported, presidential claims which have been proved demonstrably to be false.

You could be excused for simply throwing up your hands and saying, “Who knows what is true? It’s too complicated to figure out!”

But this can never be the solution for the followers of Jesus. We believe in the existence of facts, in the exercise of reason, in a reality which generally disadvantages the poor and oppressed. We know that we must seek the truth in order to fight the powers and principalities of this world.

How do we do this?

It begins by making a firm commitment to only speak the truth ourselves, whether in our speech or in our social media feeds. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus implored, “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). His point is that our speech must be grounded in truth, not lies. We must not dissemble, mislead, or distort.

Our political discourse has been greatly harmed by the proliferation of fake news websites, in which stories are fabricated for the sole purpose of generating clicks and making money. These stories have no base in reality; they hurt all discussion partners in the political process. Not only must we not tell lies; we must not pass them along to others.

It also behooves us to become more savvy media consumers. We cannot simply buy the line that the mainstream media is unreliable because it is “liberal,” nor should we conclude that all journalism has to be partisan.

All journalists, editors, and reporters have biases; they are human, after all, and they will make decisions based on conscious and unconscious factors. Total journalistic objectivity is impossible. However, when a particular event has happened in space and time, the journalist’s job is to recount the event as accurately as possible. We want to know the who, what, when, and where to the best of a reporter’s ability.

The “why” of a story belongs in the area known as “opinion.” And unless there is a clear “why,” that part of the story must be confined to the editorial pages, to the opinion feed. When the “why” of a story creeps onto the front page, into the click-bait headlines, into the nature of the story itself, such that the reader or viewer is tempted to think that this is the story itself, then we have traveled down a very dangerous road.

The followers of Jesus have our own interpretation of reality; we see the events of our times through the lens of the kingdom of God. We see all things through the eyes of God, who desires that all creation experience shalom.

But we can’t work for that shalom until we know the truth about this creation. 

It’s getting harder and harder to know that truth.

Prayer: God, may my tongue not mislead or lie. May I only speak the truth, and may I seek honesty in all I do. Help me to discern what is good and right. May my question for justice be grounded in truth.

Justice Challenge: To learn how to discern which stories on your Facebook or Twitter feed are true or false, read this article by NPR, Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts. This is also a good time to buy a subscription to, or make an investment in, journalism which you know to be objective, honest, and professional. My suggestions include: NPR, ProPublica, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.