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Bill Moyers: America Can't Deal With Reality -- We Must Be Exposed to the Truth, Even If It Hurts

Many people inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign.

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Fred never wanted to leave CBS, but in 1966, when the network refused to carry Senate hearings on the Vietnam War, choosing instead to run a repeat of "I Love Lucy," he resigned, became the media adviser to the Ford Foundation and was the prime mover in the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He became our Johnny Appleseed, persuading the foundation to put its money - millions of dollars - where his mind was.

I had left the White House by then to be publisher of Newsday and would soon join public television as anchor of a weekly broadcast. Fred's first teaching assistant, Martin Clancy, was my star producer. It was usually one of Fred's people who taught me the most about our craft - how it was possible through the coupling of word and image to come close to the verifiable truth and an honest accounting of reality. Fred played a critical role in my life when, after stints at both CBS and PBS, I had to choose between the two. I had found it increasingly difficult at the network to do the work I most wanted to do, but was reluctant to take off the golden handcuffs and leap into the world of independent production. I went over to see Fred at the foundation and there was nothing subtle in his advice. He said, "You're never going to do the work you most want to do until you do it for yourself." So, I followed him overboard.

Fred was right, as he so often was: independence meant the best hope for me to pursue journalism as a mission. Perhaps, we were naïve, but in those days many of us still assumed that an informed public is preferable to an uninformed one. Hadn't Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government"? And wasn't a free press essential to that end?

Maybe not. As Joe Keohane reported last year in The Boston Globe, political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency "deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information." He was reporting on research at the University of Michigan, which found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in new stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts were not curing misinformation. "Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger." You can read the entire article online.

I won't spoil it for you by a lengthy summary here. Suffice it to say that, while "most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence," the research found that actually "we often base our opinions on our beliefs ... and rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions."

These studies help to explain why America seems more and more unable to deal with reality. So many people inhabit a closed belief system on whose door they have hung the "Do Not Disturb" sign, that they pick and choose only those facts that will serve as building blocks for walling them off from uncomfortable truths. Any journalist whose reporting threatens that belief system gets sliced and diced by its apologists and polemicists (say, the fabulists at Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the yahoos of talk radio.) Remember when Limbaugh, for one, took journalists on for their reporting about torture at Abu Ghraib? He attempted to dismiss the cruelty inflicted on their captives by American soldiers as a little necessary "sport" for soldiers under stress, saying on air: "This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation ... you [ever] heard of need to blow some steam off?" As so often happens, the Limbaugh line became a drumbeat in the nether reaches of the right-wing echo chamber. So, it was not surprising that in a nationwide survey conducted by The Chicago Tribune on First Amendment issues, half of the respondents said there should be some kind of press restraint on reporting about the prison abuse. According to Charles Madigan, the editor of the Tribune's Perspective section, 50 or 60 percent of the respondents said they "would embrace government controls of some kind on free speech, particularly when it has sexual content or is heard as unpatriotic."

 
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