Concerning truth and lies, fake news and 'snake news,' Pope Francis and St. John Paul II and more

A long, long time ago -- as in 2004, GetReligion's first year -- I wrote a piece linked to one of the most interesting articles I have ever read about journalism and, in a unique way, religion. I am referring to the PressThink essay "Journalism Is Itself a Religion," by Jay Rosen of the journalism faculty at New York University.

I would like to urge GetReligion readers (I have done this many times) to read this Rosen piece. I do so again for reasons linked to this week's "Crossroads" discussion (click here to tune that in) about the much discussed document from Pope Francis about fake news, "snake news," journalism and the twisted state of public discourse in our world today.

The pope, you see, traces "fake news" back to the Garden of Eden, stressing that it's impossible to communicate when the process is built on lies. This document was the subject of my column this week for the Universal syndicate and a previous post here at GetReligion.

The minute you start talking about lies, that means you're discussing the conviction that it's possible to say that some statements are true and others are false. Your are discussing the belief that there is such a thing as absolute truth and that flawed, imperfect human beings (journalists, for example) can, to the best of their abilities, seek and articulate truth, as opposed to lies.

Yes, this makes me think of one of the greatest works of St. Pope John Paul II -- Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth). But that is a topic for another day.

Now, here is passage in Rosen's piece that I wrote about back in the early days of this blog. This is long, but there really isn't any way around the details:

Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.
This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:
"This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist’s convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the 'world that most of us inhabit' cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages."
Yet here is the part that intrigued me:
"But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward 'fundamentalists.' Thus, when listing the 'deadly sins' that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns 'the sin of religious certainty.' "
In other words, it’s against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being 'closed' to other traditions and their truth claims -- specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:
" 'Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,' said Proctor. Its leaders are 'absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.' ”

In other words, to quote Rosen, we are dealing with the common newsroom "orthodoxy of forbidding all orthodoxies."

But note that this still assumes that it is, ironically, possible for the priests of journalism to speak the absolute truth that people in traditional religious faiths cannot proclaim absolute truths.

(Now, let me pause and stress that I thought the original article by Samuels was quite amazing and complex and not, as some claimed, a simplistic blast against wayward "fundies." He was, in fact, tweaking the left as well as the right. I said precisely this in a post responding to an email to GetReligion from Samuels. Readers may want to check out that 2004 exchange.)

Now, what does this have to do with right now, with the Pope Francis statement?

Well, at the very least, the pope is saying that "lies" are real and that they are bad. "Truth" is good, and it's good to pursue it.

How do journalists escape the implications of this logic, even in an age when, as the National Catholic Register noted, The New York Times publishes articles with headlines such as this: "Is Your Child Lying to You? That’s Good."

Now, what's up with that? John M. Grondelski writes, for the Register:

The Times feature was one of those pieces the paper likes to run: how to raise the child to grow up prepared for postmodern life in the contemporary world. The papal document looks at the responsibility of the media in promoting truth.
Do you tell the truth because it’s more profitable to you? Because you are a person who is better task-oriented and focused? Adept at “executive skills?” Do you do so because of the “benefits of honesty rather than the drawbacks of deception,” i.e., you get something good out of it?
If you answered “no,” you aren’t very smart. The Times would have positive doubts about your intelligence. Liars, you see, are smarter.

So the truth vs. lies debates go on. And you knew that the term "postmodern" had to come into play at some point in a debate about absolute truths. Right?

Well, that is the subject that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken raised at the end of our conversation. Is journalism today truly "postmodern" or, at its best, is it merely "modern" and thus able to attempt fair, accurate, balanced coverage of pre-modern religious believers in ancient faiths?

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