Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Repairing reality

History is what is—basically a bunch of facts. The problem comes with interpretation. Journalism, it’s often said, is the first draft of history. But what about when journalists mislead us?

The video above, part of The New York Times’ “Retro Report” series, tells the story of the lady who was burned by a McDonald’s coffee, sued and was awarded “millions”. I believed—because the new media told me—that the lady put the hot coffee between her legs and drove away. That wasn’t what happened. I believed—because the news media and politicians implied it—that she was merely inconvenienced by the incident and/or she saw it as a chance to make money. They were all completely wrong and deceived us.

The facts shown in the video above are very different from the news and political narrative we were fed at the time. She was not driving and, in fact, did what any number of us might have done. She was severely burned because McDonald’s insisted on keeping their coffee at dangerously high temperatures. And, all she originally asked McDonald’s for was for them to pay for her medical bills and some small recompense. The rest happened because McDonald’s refused.

Most of us also never knew that the amount she actually received was about 1/6th of what the jury awarded her, AND she was forbidden to talk to the media about it. Everyone else got to attack her in public and in the media, to assassinate her character, but the truth was lost.

This sort of thing happens all the time, with the news media getting stories wrong, politicians deliberately misleading people in order to score political points, and the rest of us being manipulated into believing things that aren’t true and supporting actions that aren’t warranted by the real, actual facts.

Here's another example: Slate recently ran “The Welfare Queen”, a long story about “Linda Taylor”, the Chicago woman that Ronald Reagan demonised as part of his campaign for the US presidency. The story Reagan told was embellished, as his usually were, but the real story was far, far worse: The welfare cheating was exaggerated, and nothing compared to the allegations of kidnapping and murder. Also, the demagoguery and implicit racism of Reagan’s version was all the more ironic because “Linda Taylor” was probably actually white.

What both these stories—the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit and the tale of the “Welfare Queen”—have in common is that the truth was lost along the way, partly through bad or lazy journalism, and partly through the propaganda spin of ambitious politicians. As a result, most of us ended up thinking things that weren’t true, and making assumptions that weren’t warranted by the real facts.

Sometimes, it’s possible to fix our perceptions when modern journalists start digging to uncover the truth. But with the constant cutbacks in newsrooms, how more likely is it that in the future there will be far more stories to correct?

When these stories were still new, it was impossible for people to investigate the truth themselves, and we didn’t know we needed to. Now, we have the Internet, and we know how under-resourced the news media are. We should question the news we read, especially stories that fit too easily into political or commercial narratives. Somehow, though, I think that’s unlikely to happen, and in the future we’ll still need to repair reality.

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