Deception and dishonesty aren’t new. When sending his disciples out into the world 2,000 years ago, Jesus gave the following advice: “I am sending you like sheep among wolves; therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
People have always told lies to promote their agendas and to protect their economic interests.
With the rise of the abolition movement in the 1700s, slave traders filled the media with stories of how wonderful it was to be a slave. Africans were apparently happy to leave their homes, crossed the Atlantic in comfort and families lived peaceful lives on plantations in the Caribbean.
The truth, of course, was horrendously different.
It’s also quite easy for journalists to leave out parts of a story in order to promote an agenda.
Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, for example, is extremely clever and presents himself as authoritative, stating “just the facts.” Yes, what he says are facts, but if he were a student in my high school class, I would point out that there were gaps in his logic and ask him to solidify his arguments.
In a recent monologue, for example, Carlson said that in 2019, more white suspects (371) were killed by police than black suspects (236) in the United States.
Carlson failed to point out that according to the U.S. Census Bureau, black people make up only 13.4 percent of the population and there are nearly six times as many whites. So one would expect a significantly smaller number of black people to be killed by police. The fact that the numbers are so close is indeed evidence of a significant problem in that country.
Statistics help us understand problems. By studying them objectively, we can see where we need to focus our resources to build a more just society. Using numbers to cast a thin veil over racism is simply unacceptable.
The advent of 24-hour news channels and the full spectrum of political views published on the Internet haven’t resulted in a more informed population. While there are today’s equivalent of abolitionists, there are also people who try to justify views as repulsive as those of slave traders.
In consuming media, we really do need to be as shrewd as snakes by stepping back and asking a few questions. The first and most important would be: Why are you telling me this? Are you promoting honest dialogue, trying to help me to be an informed, proactive citizen working to make the world a better place or are you trying to manipulate me?
The second question is similar: What’s your agenda?
Carlson, for example, invited Dutch historian Rutger Bregman onto his program because he had criticized wealthy elites who travelled to the World Economic Forum and avoided paying taxes themselves. Over the course of the interview, Bregman turned the tables on Carlson, asking how he and his employers were any different than other elites. He pointed out that Carlson was “a millionaire funded by billionaires” because they like the spin he puts on the news. Carlson then began swearing at Bregman and Fox didn’t air the interview.
We can only reflect on the possible agendas of Bregman, Carlson and Fox News owners.
It’s vital to democracy that we be informed citizens, but we need to remember that our media is far from perfect.
I certainly have my share of scholars and human rights advocates I regularly turn to, but I never give anyone carte blanche in the quest for truth, not even myself.
There are wolves among us and misinformation is real. But if we’re shrewd, we will find the truth. And truth always endures.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.