#21: Media: Don’t Tell People What To Think

Journalism is one of the most important activities in any country. Freedom of the Press, Freedom of Speech, both are cornerstones for any successful society, not just for democracies.

Without a free press and free speech, no society will survive successfully for long. Dictatorships that disallow one or both those crucial components of public and civic life will fail eventually because they close themselves off to the truth, and get eventually stuck in a restrictive worldview that will not succeed to map reality correctly. If a country fails to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, it will also fail as a country.

Similarly, If a country’s citizens fail to listen to all sides, to praise and criticism, to all factions, to all possible opinions, they will fail as citizens, as human beings, and they will also fail their country.

The function of the press is as follows, at least from my perspective, I am no trained journalist:

  1. Gather and publish information that informs on an important issue.
  2. Deepen a discussion of that issue, and add analysis and disinterested evaluation to it, to draw reliable knowledge out from the information.
  3. Make a judgement on what happened, based on the information, and your knowledge of the wider context, and try to make that judgement in the best non-partisan way, sine ira et studio, without anger or passion, so that evaluation can happen without unnecessarily falling into a partisan camp.
  4. Give people the facts, but do not tell them how to evaluate it. You may say, “in my opinion, this is x”, but do not assume everyone should draw the same conclusions. Let people come to their own conclusions – if you have laid out your case successfully, they may just as well agree with you. If they don’t, they always have the right to exercise their own freedom of thought. People have a right to disagree without being demonized.
  5. Do not use primitive click-bait ways to draw people in with an incomplete headline, using the hook-line-and-sinker approach all too common now. “You wouldn’t believe what I found in my driveway today, Click here (and here, and here, and here, and watch the ad here, and – what was this about again?)” – anyway.

News MUST be neutral. Commentary MUST be fair. There are no sides, only truth is the side of the journalist, and truth is always neutral. Ad hominem attacks against specific people ignore the complexity of political life. Don’t think you can easily label a person you don’t like or agree with in a way that such a label puts that person – rightly or wrongly – into the anathema corner of human discourse. Things are too simplified more and more, people’s assumed identities determine whether they matter or not, and dissent suddenly has to be partisan.

This is nuts. Don’t tell me what to think. Don’t pretend you can read other people’s minds. Don’t demonize the side you like. Don’t even tell me which side you like! I should not need to care!

You telling me what I should think in order to be a decent human being (according to you!) is precisely how socialist and fascist dictatorships talk to there people. Right-think, Wrong-think, Doublethink, etc.

The Media, if it behaves like that, is a problem. They need to fix this by themselves, and we all need to realize that we, the people, need to hold the Media as much accountable as the other important aspects of our democracy.

The key words here are truth and credibility. But the truth has many sides, and it belongs to neither party, nor group, nor identity, nor belief system. A journalist will run a story even if it is unpopular and goes against network or newspaper editorial opinion. A journalist will not just placate to the base, and hope they’ll support them when the power structures change. A journalist is equally liked and disliked by all, but respected for reliable information, the unvarnished truth, and contributing to the knowledge of all.

We have a long way to go still, it seems.

#5: Democracy Means Humility

What is democracy? Plenty of smart books have been written about this oftentimes confusing topic, and those who have the privilege of living in a democratic society should know what it means, kind of. We should know.

But sadly, it seems, there is an odd reaction to democracy happening, a backlash out of frustration, and an even odder envy about other forms of government that are maybe less “messy.” This strange dissatisfaction can be witnessed all around the political spectrum. Nothing in a conversation is as easy a crowd pleaser as a slightly cynical throwaway remark about “the politicians” or “politics nowadays.”

Newsflash, nobody in history has ever liked politicians or politics, least of all those involved in it, probably. It’s one of the givens of human existence. You just don’t hear it as frequently as today, and you certainly hear it less in non-democratic countries.

Similarly, you can easily make friends by frenetically agreeing with their more partisan political opinions, just as you can easily lose them by vehemently arguing the opposite. Human beings are tribal beings, whether we like it or not. Animals probably are too. Maybe even plants. Like likes like, and the one who throws (Greek: ballein) obstacles in your way against (dia-) you, is called a devil (dia-bolos) for a reason. That’s all quite understandable.

But if you believe in a democracy, you believe that the people should rule, not the elites, not nobility, not the warriors, not only men, not only white people, not only straight people, not only non-straight people, not only people of color, not only women, not only pacifists, not only the workers. Everyone. Most political injustice historically has happened because of the exclusion of whole swaths of people.

Movements for political justice have always focused on including more, not less people from politics. Everyone means everyone, even if you cannot stand them, cannot understand them, cannot understand how they think, do not even think that they are thinking.

Democracy means humility. It means the humility of living in the awareness that other people may very well know what they are doing, whether you understand it or not; and if they don’t know, they still have a right to participate; and if you think you know what you are doing yourself, you may not know it after all either. We are all fallible. We can be right on an issue today and wrong tomorrow and right again the day after tomorrow and so on. Realizing that sooner or later would save all of us from this strange partisan tribalism that seems to be growing day by day.