A Cloud of Unreliable Witnesses

In recent weeks, our mainstream media have fallen into the journalism of hysterics, which might have struck the rest of us as hysterical in a very different sense, if it weren’t for the many people it has gravely harmed.

Catholics are used to the biases that lead the media into temptation: for editors, reporters, columnists who have already decided the Church is a repressive, anti-human, and hypocritical institution, there’s no need to look closely at facts. You can use time-tested slurs instead: rigid, medieval, misogynistic, homophobic. Crusades. Inquisition. The Borgias. And Galileo. Don’t forget Darwin.

Not to belabor the obvious, Christians already don’t expect fair MSM news stories or analysis because. . .well, because.

People more generally feel the same: surveys consistently rank journalists above car salesman but behind business executives for honesty.

Who knew, though, that the underlying problem was as widespread and evident as it has now become? It’s an old story that universities have lost passion for almost any subjects other than the new holy trinity: race, class, and gender. Few realize, however, that those colleges are the primary feeders of the main media outlets – and they share a common ethos now.

Once upon a time hard-boiled reporters – who may never have darkened the door of a college, quickly learned a bit about human nature in the school of hard knocks – and took everybody as an unreliable, potentially self-serving source to be approached with skepticism until his story can be confirmed. Our constitutional system was built on this same Biblical and realist sense that no one is to be entirely trusted. That, too, has mostly fallen into disuse.

The unfortunate events in Ferguson, MO, and the recent choking death of Eric Garner in New York have one thing in common: they were both drafted into a quite different conversation about racism, largely by a hysterical press that likes to trade in moral crusades – other than the obligation to tell the truth, whatever it might turn out to be.

There’s still a lot of uneasiness about race relations in America – and a not-to-be-dismissed sense among minorities that the police mistreat them. But if Michael Brown or Eric Garner were victims of racism, in any reasonable sense of the word, I haven’t seen the evidence.

A UVA fraternity libeled
A UVA fraternity libeled

Something similar happened in the past few days over a Rolling Stone story about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity. Unwanted sex on campuses – and the alcohol and drug use often connected with it – is a massive mare’s nest. One women’s activist said during the coverage of the case that “our culture hates women” – absurd in the terms she meant it, but not a bad description of a sexually permissive culture. Do bowls of free condoms in dorms only encourage “safe” sex, for example, or do they perhaps also send other messages?

The Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, and her editors have been attacked by journalists themselves for unprofessional behavior as the gang-rape story fell apart under scrutiny. To begin with, the fraternity in question didn’t have a party the night of the alleged crime, and subsequent interviews with the victim’s friends – which good journalists would have conducted before publishing such a lurid story – are even more troubling.

Rolling Stone issued a guarded retraction: “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” Women’s activists almost universally deplored this development as encouraging doubt towards women who report rapes. That’s certainly a problem. But if you make serious charges with serious consequences (UVA closed all fraternities and sororities pending investigations and student reputations are at stake), there needs to be proper sympathy for victims, but also proper regard for those who may be falsely accused. It’s called justice.

One of the utterly amazing facts about the Rolling Stone reporter: she openly admitted she picked that particular UVA fraternity over other potential stories for a reason: “It’s considered to be a really high-ranking fraternity, in part because they’re just so incredibly wealthy. Their alumni are very influential, you know, they’re on Wall Street, they’re in politics.” In other words, the case offered a perfect opportunity to get two of the three members of the holy trinity – gender and class – into a rape story. One journalist/critic has said that everyone involved – except the people at newsstands who sold the magazines – ought to be fired.

As with the Brown and Garner cases, to argue that these stories are not about what the press tells us they are about – simple morality tales – but are tragedies of a different kind, is characterized as denying the reality of rape, or injustice, or racism. (Garner’s own daughter denied race had anything to do with his death.)

Pondering these stories, I can’t help but think that there’s a flaw common to them all: the abandonment of the Biblical and simply human view that all people are capable of doing wrong. Michael Brown got into trouble after robbing a convenience store; a bodega owner called the police on Eric Garner for selling cigarettes illegally. Neither deserved to die, but resisting arrest – as both did – brings risks, and always will despite the most vigorous police re-training. Something bad probably happened to Rolling Stone’s “Jackie” – though not exactly what she claimed – but not primarily because of the presence of privileged young white men at Mr. Jefferson’s university.

African Americans, women, the poor suffer any number of indignities in our society. That does not mean, however, that their stories are beyond questioning, or may simply be inserted into ideologically convenient narratives. We do them no favor misidentifying the reasons for their problems. A system like ours needs accurate information and facts to function – let alone to do justice. That should be crusade enough for journalists. A reputation for honesty may still even bring success.

As someone once said, “The truth will set you free.”

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

  • The truth will set us free but lies come from the father of lies who is working incessantly to enslave mankind and murder as many souls as he can. The American mainstream media sold her soul to the father of lies long ago. They were supposed to be the guardians of liberty and have become the lackeys of tyrants and oppressors of the people. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn clearly said that the lies of the state are quickly followed by worse crimes against its citizens. He was echoing Christ who said the devil was “a liar and a murderer from the beginning.” There is no difference in this case: with the help of an acquiescent press millions of Americans have been killed in the womb. We will never know what they have to give to their country because they were slaughtered and “the guardians of liberty” approved the killing with lies and silence. Did we expect NOT to pay a price for that? Well look at our economy, our dilapidated cities, and the millions of broken lives. Atonement for those sins is not going to be light.

  • DeaconEdPeitler

    “African Americans, women, the poor suffer any number of indignities in our society. That does not mean, however, that their stories are beyond questioning, or may simply be inserted into ideologically convenient narratives. We do them no favor misidentifying the reasons for their problems.”

    Do the words: “Tawana Brawley” mean anything to the readers here?

    • Paddy Brennan

      I have just two words for you: Al Sharpton

      • DeaconEdPeitler

        …and the complicit media

  • Alley Upta

    “But if Michael Brown or Eric Garner were victims of racism, in any reasonable sense of the word, I haven’t seen the evidence.”

    Just so. All that black anger is merely evidence of unperceptive, unthinking black people being whipped into a bigoted frenzy by manipulative, godless white atheists. Got it.

  • ABBonnet

    Journalism did not exist 500 years ago, when, as Charles Taylor has noted, it was considered absolutely foundational to believe in a Christian God in Western Civilization. In Western ancient and medieval societies, events were related to the population-at-large through the institutions of government and Church. The modern concept of “the news” simply didn’t exist. People were more concerned with the state of their souls and the good of their neighbors. But everyone was certain of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    Fast forward to the 19th century, and the emergence of the modern press. Journalists were held in low esteem as fabricators of the worst sort. Mark Twain in a letter to W. D. Howells, October 30, 1880, wrote, “Journalism is the one solitary respectable profession which honors theft (when committed in the pecuniary interest of a journal) & admires the thief …”; Karl Kraus, famed Austrian journalist, defined “Journalist: a person without any ideas but with an ability to express them …”; and Charles Dickens, upon visiting the U.S. in 1842, decried journalism as “an evil power spreading odium” (Ward, Stephen, “Invention of Journalism Ethics,” 212-13). And within this time frame, another former journalist, Karl Marx, was to write that “for the socialist man … a question about a being above nature and man [e.g., God]… has become impossible in practice” (“Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844”).

    Nowadays, as Dr. Royal points out, journalists continue to be counted as liars and worse. Perhaps Pulitzer Prize-winning Walter Durante’s cover up of the enormous mass murders of Stalin stands as the nadir of journalism’s modern practice. Yet at the same time, we have bought into the “news cycle” and cannot survive without checking everyday for “the news.” Alas for the 21st century.

    • Paddy Brennan

      @ABBonnet, journalism was being born 500 years ago, the century of Luther, Henry VIII, bloody Elizabeth the first, and the proliferation of the New World slave trade by Catholic Spain and Portugal. The development of moveable type and the printing press freed the common man from the dictates of “government and the Church.” If journalists over the centuries since have shown themselves to be as vulnerable to corruption and sin as kings and bishops, it proves only their humanity.

      • ABBonnet

        What you write is the high-school-version of world history, mixed with a bit of Howard Zinn. As such, it is a greatly oversimplified version of what happened with the adoption of moveable type in the West. McCluhan called it “the Making of Typographic Man,” as the subtitle of his still helpful study “The Gutenberg Galaxy.” Typographic Man is a new type of being brought about by the technology of the moveable type and printing press; Typographic Man was made — not born, but made; born implies an organic etiology, made implies a τεχνη. As McCluhan writes “Technological environments are not merely passive containers of people but are active processes that reshape people and other technologies alike” (Gutenberg Galaxy, xxvi).

        Journalism did not become a profession for several decades after Typographic Man was made and at its start was uniformly under the patronage of the government or Church where the sheets were printed. Again, to quote McCluhan, “Printing from moveable types created a quite unexpected new environment — it created the PUBLIC” (emphasis in the original, Gutenberg Galaxy, xxvii). In other words, the environment where abstractions like “the common man” could exist, was created by the technological adoption of moveable type. Prior to that adoption, such abstractions did not exist.

        The development of truly independent newspapers and journals, took much longer. It was James Franklin, Benjamin Franklin’s older brother, who in 1721 founded the first truly independent newspaper in the then British colonies. I could go and on, recounting the history of journalism, but I’ll stop here.

        I do recommend that you read Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” to help fill out your historical knowledge. And I congratulate you on holding onto what you learned in school.

  • I concur. There is no evidence of racism. Clearly Michael Brown was completely culpable based on the evidence we’ve heard. As to the Garner case, while I think the police were reckless in their procedure, there wasn’t any evidence of racism. The police sargent in charge directing the restraint was a black woman. What I can’t understand is how the President of the US has involved himself in these matters.