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Max Roytenberg: Lies and Telling the Truth

by Max Roytenberg June 16, 2016


My Bride and I have returned to Canada after being away for almost ten years. We are happy residents in Vancouver for the first time. We were raised in Winnipeg and appreciate the milder climate, to the point that we are prepared to consider living here all year round. Nevertheless, like many others, we do go south for the winter. In that respect, we are like the Canada Geese, who follow the same kind of cycle. I heard them this early morning, in my state of semi-sleep, honking the announcement of the return of a new group to their traditional summer home.


Yesterday, I was speaking to my granddaughter. I was excited to hear from her that she has an interest in Journalism, and was thinking of pursuing that line of endeavour in the future. I was excited because I myself had had those dreams when I was young, and because I have a continuing interest in writing. And that brought me thoughts about the state of journalism in our world today. 


If I were going to tell you about the arrival of the Canada Geese to Vancouver in the kind of journalese I am accustomed to, then you would see a headline like-“They’re Back! The Canada Geese Have Returned to Vancouver”. But suppose I wanted them gone, and wanted to influence people and authorities to eliminate them, then my headline might read- “Foreign Geese Disturb Resident’s Sleep Again”. Journalists can slant the message in the direction they wish people to go. More and more we are seeing this play out in our media, sometimes hiding the actual essence of the truth.


In Israel, in recent months, there were attacks on defenceless men, women and children, as well as on policemen and soldiers, by individuals with knives and sometimes guns. Very often the perpetrators are teenagers. The outcomes were often lethal for the victims and the attackers. In one instance a few weeks ago., a young (19) female soldier at a gate in the Old City in Jerusalem, was shot at by three attackers, and hit in the head. As she was falling, fatally shot, she fired her automatic weapon, killing all three. Who knows how many innocent lives she saved? The headline on a major U.S. T.V. channel was “Israeli soldier kills three Palestinian children”. Was the essential truth about this incident conveyed to the public, or were propaganda points fostering a certain viewpoint being transmitted? Do we know the whole truth about the death of Princess Diana, the downing of the Twin Towers, the assassination of President Kennedy?


So much of current journalism has transmuted into the transmission of messages and viewpoints dictated by those who seek to control the formation of news content. We all know about the Fox channel and the Republican Party bias. And there are channels broadcasting the views of talk show hosts  supporting the other side. Too often the essential truths of significant events occurring in our world today are either ignored, downplayed, or presented in a form such that the import of real happening is hidden from the public. Isn’t “spin” the name of the game?


However, this is not new. This was developed into a fine art by the Nazis during the ‘Thirties. In the U.S., up to the War, in the New York Times, for one, Nazi propaganda was front page, while, in 1942, reports regarding the developing Holocaust were relegated to the back pages . This downplaying of the news was determined by the publisher’s policy, seeking to avoid generating any sympathy for Jews that might encourage any U.S government action to allow increased immigration. Some say that the same policy is in force today regarding any positive news about Israel.


The whole panorama of journalism has become a battlefield where competing views of the same truth are being trumpeted. Traditional views of Journalism in America as being highly principled, subject to very rigid standards of truth-seeking, seem to have been abandoned. Remember the Nixon story! We were told how careful news organizations were in pursuing the truth. Or am I being naive, and was slanted news always, always, the order of the day.  I was aware that the New York Times slanted the news according to the dictums of the publishers. Stories in our press have always been subject to pressure from publishers, business corporations and the White House. We know there is a rising tide in the minds of the public questioning whether the news broadcasted in our media can be believed. Isn’t the spate bystander camera witnessing a reaction to a loss of faith in the truthfulness of authorities?


This is our new reality. For those of us just trying to get the facts so we can make rational judgements about important issues, we have our work cut out for us. Certainly, we can no longer take every report we see at face value. We need to view a variety of news sources to get a fuller picture of events. And then we have to weigh the material we receive before we can make a judgement. For those just seeking to reinforce their biases, the task is simpler. There will be someone in the media to cater to every prejudice. Today it is no longer a question of telling the truth, but one of deciding whose truth one wishes to believe.


Here we are touching on both the vulnerabilities and the strengths of the democratic idea. In an authoritarian society one receives only the truth offered by the regime. All other truths are banished. In a democracy we are confronted by a smorgasbord. Populist ideas can steer a society in an unjust direction, but  even unpopular truths are out there on offer, and defended, even if it is an uphill battle. What to do? What to do?


Is it still true that the real truth will out? Is anybody still listening when it finally arrives?


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