- - Monday, July 11, 2016

Why do the media feed us Twinkies instead of steak?

We live in the information age, and it turns out to be an age that overflows with misinformation and disinformation. If Francis Bacon was right when he said, “knowledge is power,” then we are powerless indeed. We have more access to information than the world has ever known…so why are we still so ill-informed?

In the forthcoming book, “The Industry of Lies,” author B.D. Yemini explains how and why our media diet is thin gruel that leaves us malnourished and truth-deprived. Some of the news we consume is agenda driven, but Mr. Yemini considers most of the problem to be a result of human failure: Journalists who are simply lazy and don’t do the hard work of digging into a story, demanding facts, and putting them in the larger context in which they belong. It’s easier, he said in our interview last week, to simply write an opinion, reflect a bias, and then move on.

Sometimes, … too rarely, though …  a news outlet will invest the time and resources to uncover the truth. This famously happened after the last war between the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza, and Israel. During that war, a PR campaign produced international cries about “proportionality,” and nonstop videos of dead babies. After the dust settled, The New York Times examined actual data of the ages of Gaza war dead. Who were the casualties of war? The data revealed that, contrary to what had become conventional wisdom during the fighting, young males aged 20-29 were most overrepresented among the dead — combatants; not women, not children, not old people. New York Times deserves credit for conducting and publishing the research, although the public impact of this much-delayed truth could not compare with the power of lies previously told, repeated and reinforced.

President Obama understands how the industry of lies works. It is not by chance that he chose one of the year’s slowest news days to release his report on civilian casualties of U.S. drone attacks. With everyone headed out of town on the Friday of July 4th weekend, there was not much in the way of reaction or analysis. But even if it had been released on any other day, would the media have helped us understand its meaning? Since every life is precious, and every innocent death regrettable, ethical warfare is a complex issue, not reducible to sound bites and hashtags. This is what the U.N. says about modern warfare:

Civilian fatalities in wartime have climbed … to more than 90 per cent in the wars of the 1990s. 

It is only against this background that the concept of “proportionality” can be understood. We can compare the number of civilian casualties to enemy combatant casualties, and appreciate – or criticize – the military’s efforts to minimize civilian deaths in a particular battle or war.

Absent historical context, the news is reduced to partisan shrieking.

There’s more to the industry of lies than just lazy journalism. When a celebrity or prominent political figure is the source of false information, truth has a hard time pushing back. By the time Bernard Sanders made his third correction to his misinformation about Gaza casualties, the damage had been done. The same dynamic occurs outside of politics, as well. Vaccines have protected children for generations, but when the actress Jenny McCarthy planted fear and distrust among parents, her false claims successfully undermined the evidence of masses of scientific research.

What steps can you take to get good information? Although Ben Dror Yemini has no easy fix, he recommends that we all become cautious news consumers, reading reports from all sides to find facts that are agreed upon by those with different political biases. Watch out for “expert” opinion — their commitment to a point of view can blind them to facts that contradict their beliefs. A thoughtful reader considers context and thinks about whether the writer is making appropriate comparisons in the analysis.

The media will continue to serve us pap — unchecked sources and biased presentations — until we push back and demand quality reporting.

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