When ig­no­rance is im­per­vi­ous to fact

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OP/ED - Leonard Leonard Pitts Jr., win­ner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for com­men­tary, is a colum­nist for the Mi­ami Her­ald. Con­tact him at lpitts@mi­ami­her­ald.com. © 2017, Mi­ami Her­ald Dis­trib­uted by Tri­bune Con­tent Agency, LLC.

You could call it a mo­ment of truth, ex­cept that what ac­tu­ally came out of that mo­ment was a re­al­iza­tion of how lit­tle truth now mat­ters.

This is back in 2010, af­ter I re­counted in this space an as­ton­ish­ing feat of World War I hero­ism — a small African-Amer­i­can sol­dier named Henry John­son, wounded 21 times, sin­gle­hand­edly fight­ing off a com­pany of Ger­mans. In re­sponse, a guy named Ken shot off an an­gry email call­ing the story “PC bull.”

Judi, my as­sis­tant, sent Ken doc­u­men­ta­tion. I wrote a fol­low-up col­umn list­ing his­tory books and con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous news sources that ver­i­fied the event. Ken was un­moved.

What struck me wasn’t so much Ken’s ig­no­rance. Rather, it was how im­per­vi­ous his ig­no­rance was to cor­rec­tive fact. That was when I first fully un­der­stood that we had en­tered a new era wherein facts — those things that once set­tled ar­gu­ments con­clu­sively — car­ried all the weight of goose down.

These days, you may prove your point to a fare-thee-well, use The New York Times, a study from Har­vard, fed­eral sta­tis­tics, but the skep­ti­cal reader will still brush it all aside like a blurry Po­laroid of Big­foot.

So Politico, Face­book, McClatchy, and the Wal­ter Cronkite School of Jour­nal­ism and Mass Com­mu­ni­ca­tion at Ari­zona State Univer­sity have their work cut out for them. You see, those in­sti­tu­tions have launched projects to im­prove me­dia cred­i­bil­ity.

The fact-check­ers at Politico have been tour­ing deep red ar­eas like Mo­bile, Alabama, and Charleston, West Vir­ginia, host­ing fo­rums to en­gage with Don­ald Trump vot­ers who, by def­i­ni­tion, dis­trust me­dia fact-check­ing.

Mean­time, the so­cial me­dia gi­ant, the news­pa­per con­glom­er­ate — which owns my em­ployer, The Mi­ami Her­ald — and the J-school are part­ner­ing in the Face­book Jour­nal­ism Project.

Its aim, ac­cord­ing to an ASU state­ment, is to “help news­rooms work with their com­mu­ni­ties to de­velop in­no­va­tions that in­crease trans­parency, en­gage­ment, mu­tual un­der­stand­ing and re­spect.”

I wish them God­speed. But both projects, I think, pro­ceed from an as­sump­tion that truth is some­thing all of us value. And I’m not con­vinced all of us do.

It’s not just Ken who makes me doubt.

It’s also Fox “News” and talk ra­dio. It’s Don­ald Trump’s lies, his war on jour­nal­ism, and peo­ple’s tol­er­ance for both. And it’s stud­ies dat­ing to the 1970s, when re­searchers at Stan­ford first doc­u­mented a coun­ter­in­tu­itive phe­nom­e­non.

Namely, that peo­ple tend not to change their minds when facts prove them wrong. In­stead, they dou­ble down on the false be­lief.

So we are fight­ing hu­man na­ture here.

Worse, it is hu­man na­ture ex­ac­er­bated by ex­treme par­ti­san­ship, fear-mon­ger­ing pun­dits, a ly­ing pres­i­dent and a so­cial me­dia com­plex so vast and var­ied that even the most bizarre be­lief can find val­i­da­tion there.

Michelle Obama is a trans­ves­tite? Sure.

The mil­i­tary plans to con­quer Texas? Okey-dokey.

Vac­cines cause autism? Well, all righty, then.

Hil­lary Clin­ton is run­ning a child mo­lesta­tion ring? OK. Out of a pizza joint? Why not?

That’s just a sam­pling of the crazy that has gained pur­chase in Amer­i­can minds. So while it’s fine to en­gage to­day’s news con­sumers, I think our longterm sal­va­tion lies in their kids, in teach­ing them the lost art of crit­i­cal think­ing.

That should be a pri­or­ity in our schools. Be­cause the sta­tus quo — facts-free ig­no­rance — is un­sus­tain­able.

Yes, there is al­ways room for im­prove­ment in how news me­dia do their jobs.

But it is im­por­tant to un­der­stand that the dis­con­nect me­dia face does not stem from fail­ure to re­port the facts.

Rather, it stems from some peo­ple’s fail­ure to want them.

Pitts

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