On Wednesday evening, my wife was kind enough to take the kids solo for the night and let me go to a “Dinner and a Fight” event in Raleigh organized by Braver Angels. The group focuses on improving civility in the culture through dialogue between the left and right, which they call “blues” and “reds.”
I went as a “red” and (after a catered dinner) participated in the debate around the often-contentious issues of gun violence and mental health. At one point, I was in front of the crowd of 30 or so, representing the position that mental health is a key influence on gun violence (especially since more than half of gun deaths are suicide), while a “blue” participant countered that the availability of guns was a larger issue.
At the end of the event, the two of us shook hands, patted each other on the back, and said we’d email each other on a point or two that we wanted to further research. As far as I’m aware, there were no enemies or threats made and not even voices raised.
The very next day, their organization was hosting another debate, this time on media bias. The events got me thinking some on the role the media has in creating more conversations like the ones had that night, rather than those Americans tend to have with those across the aisle. As an opinion editor, that of course doesn’t mean I can’t have strong views, or that left and right should always agree. It does mean that we, as those who are trusted to provide the facts and frame the debate, need to tread carefully and not destroy the social capital that may be necessary to solving at least some of the issues we write about.
A big part of that responsibility, obviously, is getting those facts right, even when a juicy story drops out of the sky — like an Israeli rocket dropped onto a hospital in Gaza that kills 500 people. That is what the Hamas government told the media happened this week. And nobody seemed to question the information until after every major news source, both in the US and around the world, had already published it. There were even riots across the Middle East based on this reporting.
But then some on social media noticed that the hospital was still there, and at the actual impact site, a parking lot near the hospital, there was only a small hole in the ground, not the enormous crater that an Israeli strike would have created. Then satellite data showed the path of the rocket began right near the impact zone, so it was more likely from a Palestinian source. Then to really put the nail in the coffin of the Hamas story, Israel released chatter of Hamas officials talking about the fact that they (or more specifically their allies in Islamic Jihad) accidentally hit the area with a projectile. Thankfully, there isn’t even evidence of major casualties from the incident.
The media was so desperate to be first in delivering the big news that they didn’t bother to check it. One popular conservative commentator summarized it this way:
Even NBC’s Walter Cronkite-award-winning specialist on disinformation and extremism, Ben Collins, was duped and then widely criticized for rushing to push this version of events based only on Hamas’ word. Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both very critical of Israel anyway, gladly used this as further evidence of Israel’s inhumanity.
A similar story happened earlier in October, when Pope Francis answered a “dubia,” which is a letter asking for clarity, and his response immediately led to headlines around the world saying that the Catholic Church had officially changed its views on gay marriage, or was open to it, or maybe was going to consider blessing gay unions. Here are a few of those headlines below, which still have not been changed:
But as many church scholars have pointed out… Pope Francis did nothing of the sort. One can read his answer to the dubia (the second question posed) at this Vatican News link. He said, “The Church has a very clear understanding of marriage: an exclusive, stable, and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to procreation,” and that “For this reason, the Church avoids any type of rite or sacramental that might contradict this conviction and suggest that something that is not marriage [like a same-sex union] is recognized as marriage.”
The part that likely caused the confusion was where he said priests can “discern whether there are forms of blessing, requested by one or more persons, that do not convey a mistaken concept of marriage” as long as they are “morally acceptable from an objective point of view,” because blessings are “a plea to God for help, a supplication to live better.”
It is a little vague, but saying one person, or five, can ask a priest to bless them so they can live a better life is not a green light on same-sex unions, especially if the previous paragraph ruled out that possibility. But that was the headline countless publications went with. Since then, I’ve seen major confusion, by both Catholics and non-Catholics, on the issue.
I use these two examples because of their recency and importance, but there are many more examples where the media, both on the left and right, run with stories like these because they’d like them to be true or because other peer publications ran them first.
The impact on civility and social cohesion is obvious. If we don’t have the same facts, we won’t even have a foundation on which to begin the debate. And if we are focusing on sensationalism and on a more extreme version of reality than even exists, then we will have a heightened sense of distrust for opponents.
The media needs to take their role in the conversation seriously. It’s a great responsibility, and failure can further divide neighbor against neighbor and even nation against nation.