“The media in general, and TV in particular, are incomparably the single greatest single influence in our society. This influence is, in my opinion, largely exerted irresponsibly, arbitrarily, and without reference to any moral or intellectual, still less spiritual guidelines whatsoever." Christ and the Media – 1977, Malcolm Muggeridge
These rather prophetic words of the great British journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge now pale in light of the proliferation of forms of media that not even he could have ever imagined. Information and its sibling, misinformation, abound in the world of social media that is the daily diet of most people on planet Earth today. Muggeridge warned us, and rightly so, that the media is essentially a “world of shadows” – a world substantively different from the real world, and, therefore, what is objectively true. He goes as far as stating that the media is inherently evil. He may be correct. I think we can say that the media in their various forms today are increasingly, at least, inclined to distortion and deception.
It is not my intention here to critique the media or to do an analysis of the quality of “news” coverage in our time. Suffice to say though that “news” as we used to understand it can be as seemingly normal as the national news broadcast on television or as bizarre as information through Buzzfeed. Of course, everything in between what might be called serious journalism and sheer insanity exist at our very finger tips literally every second of the day. Anyone, perhaps, most human beings today own a mobile phone that produces this increasingly demented sense of our world to us anytime we want and according to our own tastes and inclinations, and dare I say, sinfulness.
Not surprisingly then, it is a major challenge for citizens even in a free society to sift the reality from the fiction of what is communicated. There are many examples of this dilemma. I must admit that I was quite struck recently about the incident involving a group of secondary school students visiting Washington D.C. for the annual March for Life held earlier this month. Many of you are probably aware of the situation and how it was initially reported by the major media outlets. Regrettably, the first reports of the apparent incident were terribly misrepresented. Without entering the discussion about any relative merits of what transpired, it should be of concern to us that within seconds people of all kinds were weighing in on a situation without any real knowledge of what happened. As a result, the supposed incident received far more coverage than it deserved and many people, in particular the students involved, were depicted in the most offensive terms by journalists, politicians and entertainers. Conclusions were drawn without regard for the facts, but also for the interests of the young people involved - Catholic students there to participate in a pro-life march. It would be an impossible task now after the fact, to dissect the facts and falsehoods since depending on the inclinations of the media outlet divergent reporting of the event was depicted. Do we really believe that “tweets” can communicate anything real or substantive about any event? While this tendency to report without due regard for the reality of a matter may have been true to a degree in the past , it was far more limited and, here I think is the critical point, that it was done where there existed some modicum of decency and respect. It is hard to believe that Walter Cronkite or Lloyd Robertson would conduct themselves in the manner many so-called journalists do these days.
We have forgotten the journalistic discipline and class that was exercised during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Americans knew he was afflicted with polio but he was not filmed with his crutches and rarely in his wheelchair. There was no edict dictating that this was what was to be done – just common everyday decency prevailed. No one really cared, much less reported, that Winston Churchill suffered from depression or that John A. Macdonald liked his liquor. They did their jobs with all their talents and faults. The preoccupation with the defects and the shortcomings of anyone in the public forum, especially, reflects more on the people we have become than on actions of the famous or infamous. We are quick to judge and to condemn. This inability to forgive results in the inability to cope and, worse, in a collective anger that destroys the fabric of any chance for a just and gentle society. This allows us to regard entire groups of people as toxic or suffering from phobias. The tweets hurled at the students in Washington are the stuff of the worst thugs of intolerance and meanness. Ever ready to find the log in our neighbour’s eye and cast stones, we have been led down the path of loathing, others and ourselves. As a Religious for most of my life now, I can attest to the fact that it is commonly presumed today that Catholic priests and Religious are hopelessly twisted and depraved persons hiding from something and complicit in all the errors of the last two millennia of Western history. This prevailing opinion has been mostly created by media hype and a superficial, at best, understanding of past events and a deliberately distorted perception which speaks seldom of similar issues in other faith traditions. We seem no longer able or willing to separate the faults and even crimes of some from the lived realities of the many. Likewise, we have acquired what has become an insatiable appetite to condemn the actions of those in the past from the comfort of the present. No perspective, no deep knowledge, have reduced history to a series of sound bites to suit the tastes of the spectrum of political agendas of our time. We used to call this political expediency, or simply cowardice. To our ruin, it is feeding the beast of revenge, a beast that can never be satiated.
Shooting and asking questions later has never been part of a healthy society, and certainly not one that values freedom and the basic concept of being held innocent before being proven guilty. The sign of a society that is, perhaps, not only sick but possibly one that is beyond recovery, is one where journalistic integrity is unashamedly partisan and ideologically compromised. It cannot be stated strongly enough that this situation is an attack on true freedom and represents the decline of a civilisation of any value. Not all civilisations reach the same degree of evolution. In a developed, and presumably democratic, society like ours which had been founded on the Judeo-Christian belief system, we seem eager to disregard or forget a heritage that even with its faults valued fairness and justice. Here the media must accept responsibility for creating a form of illusory dictatorship capable of smiling and wounding at the same time. This is particularly true of those who are antagonistic and hostile to Christianity, and increasingly even Judaism and Islam. Fashionably acceptable though, they will use anything at their disposal to attack Christians and sadly they do so without much opposition. The lack of a self-imposed sense of ethical responsibility and plain decency on the part of the media has been relegated to the past by ambitious and nasty ideologues almost always as privileged as those they conveniently attack from a safe distance.
Make no mistake now that the persecution of Christians which has been common place in many parts of the world, although largely unreported by our enlightened media, has begun here as well. Sadly, it was just a matter of time and most have yet to recognise that it is happening. It will continue and intensify given the climate of the times.
What is most troubling is that this is the world into which we are sending our young people. I know we believe that our students are prepared well for the rigours of university from an academic perspective. Are we doing enough to prepare them to remain solid in their faith and ideals? This is the more important question. I would like to believe that there were solutions in the arenas of politics and other service-oriented professions like teaching and law but I am doubtful. The current trends to populism in politics – mostly a reaction to the exaggeration of political correctness, the entrenched and invested establishment, and the climate of historical revisionism, seems to lack an ethical base as well, one clearly long abandoned by the mainstream political movements of our time.
It seems to me that we must also equip our young people, and remind ourselves, of the dangers of the blind worship of the media. As well, we must learn to recognise that the media needs to be viewed with a healthy sense of skepticism. Democracies demand this now more than ever. We must accept our own culpability when we engage in the forms of media that are superficial, silly and perverse, especially when intended to harm or hurt others.
More importantly, in the face of this world of shadows, popularly coined today as “fake news”, only true conversion to our better selves is the ultimate defence and remedy. Falsehood of any kind comes from the Evil One and, therefore, leads us to where we should not follow. For us as Catholics, it will require more than just lip service to the commitments of our faith. The Eucharist, the sacrament of reconciliation, acts of charity in word and deed are, and always have been, the way, the truth and the life we were called to embrace and which leads to our salvation.
We must speak with our young people about these realities and their dangers. Adolescence brings with it the pressures to conform to this world. We cannot avoid these realities but we run the risk of losing our young people to a world which has forgotten virtue and goodness. Families, schools, and parishes should work towards building virtue and goodness. Less of what the world offers and more of what our faith can give is the best thing we can hand on to our young today. No doubt a challenge but a necessary one. There is much to lose and we become much less truly human.
“Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good, pleasing and perfect.” St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans
Brother Domenic, fsc