Please ponder this pair of true or false questions.
When religious, cultural and political liberals complained about Donald Trump promoting his own “alternative facts” for use in the mainstream press, did they have a valid point? Was it fair game for them to apply the academic term “post-truth” in this case?
When religious, cultural and political conservatives complained about Democrats and their Big Tech-Big Media allies burying coverage of the Hunter Biden laptop scandal, funders of Antifa, origin debates about COVID-19 and Jane’s Revenge attacks on churches and crisis-pregnancy centers, did they have a valid point? Was it fair game for them to apply the academic term “post-truth” in this case?
I would argue that the correct answer is “yes,” in both cases.
Debates about the meaning of the term “post-truth” were at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in). There was a logical reason for that, since Clemente Lisi and I were speakers in a March 10-11 conference in Washington, D.C., with this title: “Journalism in a Post-Truth World.” The conference was sponsored by Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Eternal Word Television Network.
The Franciscan University press release afterwards noted that the participants included journalists from the “National Catholic Register, The Washington Post, OSV News, Fox News, CNN, RealClearPolitics, The Catholic Herald, The Spectator, Washington Examiner, National Review, The Daily Signal, Catholic News Agency, The Daily Caller, and GetReligion.” Well, I had requested that I be identified as a columnist with the Universal press syndicate, but I wear several hats.
That’s a list that clearly leans to newsrooms on the cultural right, but with some solid mainstream voices as well. For example, I was on a panel about Catholic news coverage with the (in my eyes) legendary religion-beat pro Ann Rodgers, best known for several decades with the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Also, click here for a Lisi post at Religion Unplugged about his presentation.
It’s safe to say that someone was there from the National Catholic Reporter, because of this headline in that progressive Catholic publication: “EWTN-sponsored conference on journalism embraces right-wing ‘post-truth’ narrative.” Here’s the overture on that:
Two Catholic institutions co-sponsored a conference last week where journalists from conservative news outlets and commentators from right-wing think tanks gathered at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., to weigh in on the state of journalism in a so-called “post-truth” world.
In keynote talks and panel discussions during the March 10-11 event, several speakers voiced longtime conservative criticisms of the news media, accusing journalists at mainstream secular outlets of being ignorant of religion, and hostile to Catholicism in particular. They described a news profession where reporters and editors promote legal abortion and “gender ideology” while marginalizing traditional religious voices. …
During the conference, several speakers described a “post-truth era” linked with the “dictatorship of relativism” that German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned off in a homily on the eve of the conclave in 2005 at which he was elected Pope Benedict XVI.
Now, compare that headline with this material later in the same story:
While the phrase was used academically before 2016, “post-truth” entered the public consciousness during Donald Trump’s presidency when his aides presented “alternative facts” in news interviews and uttered obvious falsehoods about inauguration crowd sizes during White House press briefings.
In other words, there’s more to this “post-truth” term than right-wing narratives. We live in an age of niche media — including way too many elite newsrooms — in which editors, for logical reasons, fervently preach to the choirs of readers who are willing to pay for this advocacy news content. Yes, please click here for more on that drama.
Later on, the National Catholic Reporter piece noted — oh so briefly — the content that made up about half of the discussions during this conference, during speeches and panels and banter at meals. Read the following carefully:
In a “Bias in Journalism” panel, Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, a right-wing media watchdog group, suggested that The New York Times and The Boston Globe reported on the clergy sex abuse scandals in the 1990s and early 2000s to undermine the church’s moral authority and clear the way for same-sex marriage and “abortion on demand.”
“This was their way of taking it to the enemy,” Graham said.
Other conference speakers and presenters spoke of the necessity of the press covering clergy sex abuse and other scandals in the church. Some panelists also touched on various challenges facing the news media, such as the industry’s decline in advertising revenues and the pressure to appeal to readers by offering “clickbait” content that may not comport with traditional journalistic standards.
I am hoping that, in the near future, the videos of all the speeches and panels will be posted online — so that people can hear for themselves what participants had to say. It is also, of course, possible to read reports about the conference from some of the conservative news operations that took part, such as this from the Catholic News Agency: “EWTN CEO Michael Warsaw: Catholic journalists called to be ‘truth tellers’.”
It helps to know that, during this conference, people used the word “truth” in several different ways. Some speakers defined “truth” in terms of faith in Jesus Christ — period. Others used “truth” as a reference to doctrines in, let’s say, the Catholic Catechism.
Other journalists used “truth” when discussing old-school journalism efforts to strive for accuracy, balance and fairness in news coverage. Some of us were, for example, very concerned about efforts to edit activist-group language — from one side only — into the Associated Press stylebook.
The Franciscan University report elaborated a bit on the painful business-model budget crunch that was briefly mentioned in the National Catholic Reporter article. Thus:
“I realized journalism was in trouble when I realized the business model had failed,” said panelist Carl Cannon, Washington bureau chief at RealClearPolitics. “You have this model now where you have to kowtow to the mob, and the mobs are siloed. It turns out if you give people what they think they want, that might work economically but it isn’t journalism.”
Terry Mattingly, founder and editor of GetReligion, also spoke about the interplay between new business models and media bias.
“Biased journalism is good business. It also fits the technology. The one thing the internet does well is divide us into small, concrete silos of information where we are not confronted by anybody else who would disagree with us.”
Explaining how transparency has replaced objectivity as the standard of professional journalism, Mattingly concluded that “we need to move away from language of media bias and start pleading for honesty from publications to at least admit they’re not going to cover certain issues with fairness.”
As I said, there were many interesting people at this conference and I will post the online videos when they become available. My “On Religion” column this week, for example, focused on the keynote address by Rep. Dan Lipinski, a pro-life Democrat who represented a Chicago-land district for 16 years — before running into a buzz-saw of social media, liberal activists and, yes, some rather slanted mainstream news coverage.
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.
FIRST IMAGE: Uncredited graphic with “Post-Truth Politics” feature at PopulismStudies.org