We have lately heard a lot of talk about "fake news".
Fans of President Donald Trump fans don't have a monopoly on this idea. Left-wingers complain that the mass media is controlled by capitalists exploiting their "monopoly" to defend their unjust privileges.
Even though reasonable skepticism about mass media is always prudent, we should not get carried away with distrust. I have useful personal experience here, having subscribed to the Soviet Communist Party paper Правда (Pravda) — which ironically means "truth" — for 29 years, from 1962-1991, as part of my work as a political scientist.
Until Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 this paper was an extreme example of a publication with minimum credibility. It wasn't so much that it printed factually untrue stories, but that important things were going on that it didn't report at all. More importantly, these things were not reported by any other newspapers, radio, or television stations in the Soviet Union.
The Soviet government had an organization called Glavlit, employing about 80,000 censors who tightly controlled what could and could not be published or broadcast.
The censors had a manual several hundred pages long listing things that could not be talked about, including the existence of an organization called Glavlit!
To maintain this literal monopoly of control over information, the government operated jamming transmitters to prevent people from listening to foreign shortwave stations like the Voice of America and the BBC. And of course the Internet had barely gotten started when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
Sometimes there was completely fake news in the Soviet press, as when the KGB put out a claim that AIDS had been invented by the American government. But the basic problem was the intentional elimination of information and interpretations that conflicted with the interest of the rulers in the Kremlin.
Obviously the American media, despite unfortunate increasingly concentrated ownership, is very different from the genuine monopoly in the Soviet Union. What The New York Times ignores may be reported by The Washington Post. What The Wall Street Journal suppresses may be published by the Nation or by the Atlantic. Points of view that don't get into the mainline press may be published on-line by CommonDreams or by Newsmax.
And unlike the Soviet Union, the United States has no equivalent of Glavlit, no recent history (with occasional wartime exceptions) of imposing criminal punishment on people expressing dissident views. And we are blessed with the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
The wide variety of information and perspectives available implies important advice to Americans who distrust "the media" and fear being deceived by "fake news." We need to get our information and different ways of interpreting it from a variety of sources rather than depending on a single source, whether it be The New York Times, Fox News, or the "friends" with whom we are connected on Facebook.
We also need to be aware that many people and organizations are interested in manipulating us by controlling the information we get, the contexts in which it is reported, and the interpretations placed on it.
We need to use common sense in evaluating the credibility of the reports and judgments we encounter, discounting them appropriately for the possible bias and self-interest of their sources.
To protect ourselves from being conned by Madison Avenue, by political spin-doctors, or by Russian trolls, we need to refine our ability to think critically and systematically. We need to improve our ability to spot BS, impossible promises by politicians, false advertising, and the like.
Liberal education does not refer to "liberal" in the political sense, but to a broad acquaintance with the world, with history, with what makes people tick. It refers to the ability to think tolerably well about a wide range of subjects.
Political conservatives as well as liberals need to become liberally educated, so they can pursue their goals intelligently, with a proper consideration of the costs and benefits of actions they may be contemplating. People don't need to go to college to become liberally educated and, unfortunately, don't always gain this perspective even when they do go to college.
But it is never too late to start, and self-education is always available.
Above all, we need to avoid getting all of our information and perspectives from one source, no matter how much we like what we find there. Why waste the opportunities given to us by our rich multiplicity of media channels and protected by the First Amendment?
Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan, Oregon, and a number of other states. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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