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The Will to Disbelieve.

Radio, February 3, 2009

I think I am beginning to understand something that has troubled me for a long time.

Not long ago, in a radio program, I said something to the effect that “Journalism has been thoroughly corrupted by the pursuit of profit.”


          I later came to feel that I was missing something, and a letter from a listener, himself a graduate of journalism school, helped me get the issue in better focus.


          In the interest of getting me to reconsider, he enclosed a copy of “The Journalist’s Creed.”


                      I didn’t even know there was something like the hippocratic oath for Journalists.


                      The creed was written by Dean Walter Williams, the first Dean of journalism at Missouri University.


          I want to share it with you, but I need to clarify what I said about the pursuit of profit.


                      There is nothing at all wrong with the pursuit of profit, per se, and if the advertizing division of a newspaper is kept far away from the editorial department of a newspaper that is a step in the right direction.


                                  But the problem really doesn’t lie there. It is on a much higher floor of the building.


                      The problem is that an influential newspaper is a source of power, and power corrupts. It is just as apt to corrupt a newspaper as it is the halls of congress.

I came across some studies recently that caused me to rethink the issue.

During the 2008 policital campaign, Shankar Vedantam writing in the Washington post


          “. . .a series of new experiments show that misinformation can exercise a ghostly influence on people's minds after it has been debunked -- even among people who recognize it as misinformation. In some cases, correcting misinformation serves to increase the power of bad information.” Endnote

I have observed this in theological discussions, so I had little trouble believing it to be true.


          Here is an example I cited before about what was found:

In experiments conducted by political scientist John Bullock at Yale University, volunteers were given various items of political misinformation from real life. One group of volunteers was shown a transcript of an ad created by NARAL Pro-Choice America that accused John G. Roberts Jr., President Bush's nominee to the Supreme Court at the time, of "supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber."

A variety of psychological experiments have shown that political misinformation primarily works by feeding into people's preexisting views. People who did not like Roberts to begin with, then, ought to have been most receptive to the damaging allegation, and this is exactly what Bullock found. Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to disapprove of Roberts after hearing the allegation.

Bullock then showed volunteers a refutation of the ad by abortion-rights supporters. He also told the volunteers that the advocacy group had withdrawn the ad. Although 56 percent of Democrats had originally disapproved of Roberts before hearing the misinformation, 80 percent of Democrats disapproved of the Supreme Court nominee afterward. Upon hearing the refutation, Democratic disapproval of Roberts dropped only to 72 percent.


          Getting at things like this is hard, and it is easy to misinterpret results, but there isn’t much question about this.


          The columnist went on to cite other studies, but when I got through the column, I wondered to what extent the columnist was skewing the reporting on the findings.


                      Can you see the concern here? Who is to say that the journalist has not been influenced in the same way the volunteers in the study had been influenced by misinformation.

I can see that one factor at work here is the fear of being shown you have been wrong in your judgment, whether it be politics, Family, coworkers, religion or any other area where you hold strong opinions.


          Fear is a powerful motivator and it can skew a person’s judgment, whether he be politician, journalist or preacher.

This state of mind, which can boil down to a refusal to face facts, to face the truth, might be called a spirit of unbelief:


          In the Book of Hebrews, the author wrote about this unbelief”

(Hebrews 3:12-19 KJV) Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God. {13} But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.


          It isn’t hard to see this at one level. For example, it is a rare person who is involved in an extra marital affair, sin, to look for reasons to justify what he is doing.


                      Would he take comfort from the flow of disinformation about the effects of the sexual revolution?


                      I think it is fair to say, most people would tend to skew information to justify what they are doing.


                      What the book calls “The deceitfulness of sin.”


          It isn’t hard to see how one could become hardened against facts that point to his error.

Hebrews goes on:

{14} For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence stedfast unto the end; {15} While it is said, To day if ye will hear his voice, harden not your hearts, as in the provocation.


          Because his readers are Hebrews, and know the background from their history, he can briefly call it to record.

{16} For some, when they had heard, did provoke: howbeit not all that came out of Egypt by Moses. {17} But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? {18} And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? {19} So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.


          It is obvious that unbelief can be repented and a person can change.


          It is also obvious that many, perhaps most, simply don’t.


          It is clear in the biblical record—and in the research by academics.


                      People, perhaps even journalists, become fixed in their views and cannot change.

The early Christian church was not immune:


          It is clear enough in the New Testament, and understandable as human nature, that the First Christians were almost desperate in their hope for the Kingdom of God.


          Paul inadvertently contributed to it in his first letter to the Thessalonians and he had to write again to them to clarify the record.


(2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 KJV) Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, {2} That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.


          It isn’t hard to see how a people, praying daily for the kingdom to come, would grasp at any information that reinforced that hope.


          So Paul has to correct the error, if he can.


          Our problem with this letter is that we lack the foundation the church had from Paul’s time there. We are reading someone else’s mail.

{3} Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; {4} Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God. {5} Remember ye not, that, when I was yet with you, I told you these things?


          What Paul is trying to do here is to go back before the apparent misunderstanding and “reset” the truth.


          Apparently, he had laid out in person a sequence of events that had to precede the return of Christ, events that were not yet in evidence.


          This is a very difficult passage.

(2 Thessalonians 2:6-12 NIV) And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. {7} For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way.


          The Greek is ambiguous here and has prompted endless speculation.

{8} And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.


          Now here comes what is relevant to the present discussion:

{9} The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, {10} and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. {11} For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie {12} and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.


          The very idea of “believing the lie” ought to strike fear into our hearts.


          The antidote? To love the truth, even when it is painful.

Not long after, I came across an article in First Things that underlined the point.

The Will to Disbelieve

by Mary Eberstadt

Copyright (c) 2009 First Things (February 2009


          Her article was about the sexual revolution, and the continuing denial by too many people of the ill effects it has brought, especially upon women and children.


          But she opened with a classic, undeniable example, of intellectual blindness to facts and truth.


                      Her example was the way academia refused to see the evil of Marxism and its failure in the Soviet Union.


                      I cannot imagine a clearer example of the abject failure of an ideology.

Ms. Eberstat summarized:


          In retrospect, this formidable perversity—this otherwise inexplicable act of intellectual abdication—was more than just an outbreak of intellectual slumming. It was, in fact, one of the defining features of the Cold War. The denial stretched across the Western intelligentsia from Seoul to Boston, Oslo to Buenos Aires, and just about every point in between, wherever people clever enough to ignore the evidence could invent seemingly sophisticated reasons for doing so. Such profound and systematic resistance to the empirical facts was dubbed by the stalwart anticommunist Jeane Kirkpatrick as the "will to disbelieve," in an essay by that same name—a fine phrase that deserves resurrecting in a different context today . . .


          That expression cuts like a knife: The Will to Disbelieve.


          She went on to note:

As Malcolm Muggeridge once observed, "People do not believe lies because they have to but because they want to."


          I can’t help repeating Paul:


          (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12 NIV) For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie {12} and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.

I have told you all this to come back to the Journalist’s creed:

Journalist's Creed Endnote


The Journalist's Creed was written by the first dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, Walter Williams. One century later, his declaration remains one of the clearest statements of the principles, values and standards of journalists throughout the world. The plaque bearing the creed is located on the main stairway to the second floor of Neff Hall.


I believe in the profession of journalism.

I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.

I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.

I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.

I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.


          This is all very admirable, but do you see the problem yet?


          What happens when a journalist is not thinking clearly, and why should we think he is any more immune to muddle than anyone else?


          We already know that a man can hold a lie in heart while he thinks it is true.


          And whose definition of the “The welfare of society” controls?


          It is right here that I had an epiphany, and I’ll come back to it.

I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one's own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another's instructions or another's dividends.



          In other words, we must not allow the profit motive to corrupt the news. We all agree.

I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.


          In an atmosphere of lies, how does one find “a single standard of helpful truth.”

          And what about unhelpful truth?


          especially unpleasant truth. Can an honest journalist toss out a story he knows to be true because, in his judgment, it is unhelpful?

I believe that the journalism which succeeds best -- and best deserves success -- fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international good will and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today's world.


          And maybe it is in this last paragraph that we come to understand why it is that large chunks of todays news media are failing.


          They don’t deserve success on the criteria cited here.


          Actually, this creed helps me understand the failure of journalism in today’s world.


          It provides a cover for slanted journalism under the banner of what is best for society.

I began to realize that the problem with Journalism arises long before the profit or power motive comes into play.


There is widespread belief among Americans that the media were in the tank for Obama.


If they were supporting him, I suspect is was because they thought his election would be for the good of the country.


And it is such a small step from that to just not seeing news that might reflect against the preferred candidate.


While spending extra time and space covering what made the other candidate look bad.

In a way, the election of 2008 looks like an exercise of affirmative action by the population, aided and abetted by Journalists.


          I might not have thought so if it had not been for all the news items that made it clear it was so.


                      Take the remark by Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman ever to be nominated as Vice president:


                                  She spoke the truth: Barack Obama, had he been white, would never have been nominated by the Democratic party.


                      There was a lot of hyperventilating over that, and Geraldine was made to pay for it, but it was obviously true.

Nevertheless, the country will survive for now, because of our constitution which balances the power of the president agains congress.


          But I think we are in for some rough seas, made all the worse because we can’t be sure at any time that we are being told the truth.

This is really distressing when you think about it. Even the news telling us how people’s opinions are skewed may itself be influenced by skewed opinions.


          Oddly, what we are talking about is a kind of idolatry.


          Isaiah spoke of something like it.

(Isaiah 44:13-20 NIV) The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. {14} He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. {15} It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. {16} Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." {17} From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." {18} They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. {19} No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, "Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?" {20} He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?"


          How close it is. It is right there in your right hand. And it is a lie.


          What is your defense? A love of the truth, and the starting place is the Bible and a distrust of your own opinions.


          (Proverbs 14:12 NIV) There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.


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