‘Alternative Facts’ and Christians as Gullible Skeptics

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It happened during the Ebola crisis a few years ago. I was following the news coverage, praying for missionaries and hoping for a solution that would put a stop to the plague in Africa.

Frustrated with the mismanagement of the situation and concerned about the possibility of an outbreak in the United States, I made a snarky comment on Twitter about a governor who had said that panicking was ill advised because the Ebola virus was not easily contracted.

A friend of mine, Jeremy Writebol, called me out on Twitter for spreading misinformation. He told me there were only a few ways that Ebola could be contracted, and that the governor’s statement was factually correct and desperately needed.

I wasn’t about to argue with Jeremy. His mother is Nancy Writebol, one of the missionaries who, with Kent Brantly, contracted Ebola and survived. I figured he knew what he was talking about, and I was spreading misinformation. Busted!

Fake News and the Mainstream Media

This weekend, an advisor to President Trump claimed the White House spokesperson gave “alternative facts” regarding the size of the crowd at the inauguration. The “truth versus spin” debate happened furiously online, with “fact-checkers” trying to set the record straight while Trump supporters pointed to yet another example of the “lamestream media” promoting their own narrative.

This outburst is just the latest in a series of events where truth, facts, and spin are all confused. Late last year, much was made about the plague of “fake news” spreading online, through false websites, ridiculous email chains, and on social media. The mainstream media outlets are aghast at the irrelevance of “fact checking,” and Oxford chose “post-truth” as the word of the year.

But many Christians believe the word “post-truth” has shown up late. We’ve been speaking out about postmodern philosophy in the university, biased media coverage, and “post-truth” tendencies for years. It’s only now, after Election 2016 trafficked in post-truth news stories on the right that everyone seems to have woken up to the problem.

There are good reasons for Christian skepticism toward mainstream media outlets.

For example, Mollie Hemingway has painstakingly documented the ways journalists collude with the abortion industry in their coverage of Planned Parenthood controversies. And Marvin Olasky points out how false figures in the abortion debate (“alternative facts”) were used to shore up support for pro-choice policies:

The advent of penicillin led to a decline in abortion-related maternal deaths from 5,000 per year during the 1930s to perhaps 300 (officially, 160) in 1967. Yet 1960s pro-abortion leaders like Dr. Bernard Nathanson gave “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year” as the current figure, and leading newspapers used that number to promote abortion legalization as a way to stop “back-alley abortions.” Nathanson, after coming to Christ and opposition to abortion, said, “I knew the figures were totally false, but they were ‘useful.’”

The NYT Narrative 

The New York Times displays liberal bias both in what their journalists write and what stories they choose to cover (and what they bury elsewhere). Michael Cieply, who recently left The Times after working there for twelve years, explains how the atmosphere differed from the Los Angeles Times:

By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line. . . . The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper’s daily Page One meeting: “We set the agenda for the country in that room.”

Conservative Christians have a right to be skeptical when it comes to mainstream media bias. But we are way too skeptical if we distrust any fact or figure from any mainstream site. And we are much too gullible if we easily believe stories that come from other sources, including the new administration.

Gullible Skeptics 

Too many Christians these days are “gullible skeptics.” Skeptics toward establishment type media outlets, and gullible toward other websites or toward political spinmeisters who already line up with their preexisting beliefs or worldview.

What’s the point in chiding the abortion industry for championing false, but “useful” numbers regarding abortion deaths in the 1960’s if we are just as guilty for spreading misinformation because we find it useful or beneficial to our party?

On an episode of This American Life last year, host Ira Glass spoke with his Uncle Lenny who believed President Obama was bent on destroying America through illegal immigration and intentional disastrous policies. The misinformation came fast and furious:

  • Obama has played more rounds of golf than any president in history. (Untrue: Eisenhower played three times as much, and Woodrow Wilson four.)
  • Obama claims to have run the Harvard Law Review but never contributed an article for them. (Untrue. He did.)
  • Obama wants the borders of Canada and Mexico to be erased, and that is why he ignores all deportation laws. (Untrue. Obama deported 2.5 million people, more than any other president.)

Ira’s uncle refuses to believe that Obama deported that many people. It must be false. Exasperated after that last stat, Ira says, “Facts do not have a fighting chance against this right-wing fable.”

Now, This American Life is a liberal-leaning radio show on NPR. I wish that Ira Glass were a little more skeptical of the mainstream media he trusts without question.

But he’s right to point out how easily people fall for false information when it comes from the sources that affirm their preexisting worldview. In fact, this happens on both the right and the left.

Facts don’t have a fighting chance against “left-wing fables” either. Entire books have been written about how the religious right is on the verge of setting up a theocracy through secret gatherings and meetings that are planning sessions of solidifying power. (Trust me. I flipped through one of these left-wing books in an airport and chuckled my way through it, at both the unfamiliarity with common Christian terminology and the suspicious motives toward any conservative Christian involved in politics. A left-wing fable, indeed.)

No, the plague of misinformation infects conservatives and liberals alike, and Christians and non-Christians as well. But surely Christians are called to show a better way.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a friend who writes for The Washington Post, urges Christians to carefully consider what our gullibility and skepticism may communicate:

As a reporter who also happens to be a Christian, I believe that truth exists and can be ascertained, even if imperfectly and the fact that we understand it imperfectly heightens our duty to pursue it diligently. And I believe journalism is the one of the best practical pursuits of truth in earthly life, one that allows us to reveal and explain the truth to others. Many religions seek a truth that is beyond the scope of journalism, yet if people of faith no longer accept the veracity of factual truth, then they threaten to undermine their own pursuit of ultimate questions.

Abandoning mainstream media sites for opinion sites you already agree with is not the answer. The “mainstream media” is collectively valuable because it presents a range of information and viewpoints, while the Breitbarts of the world present a singular voice to a targeted group of people.

Way Forward 

In This Is Our Time, I build on Frank Luntz’s point that news today has become less about information and more about affirmation. It’s about affirming what we already believe to be true. And the “everywhere at all times available” culture created by our smartphones gives us regular doses of news that tells us “You are right.”

If we are to be faithful in a world of “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and biased sources, we are going to need to be more careful with the statistics we share, the news stories we read, and the sources we trust. Gullible skeptics, either on the right or left, don’t stand out from the world. And what we need today is for Christians to care about getting the facts straight, whether or not they’re useful or beneficial to “the party line,” because we believe in a God who tells the truth.

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