Constructing Reality: The news and you

Posted: Sep 23, 2006 12:01 AM

The largely unexamined assumption many of us make when we pick up our morning paper is that reality is somewhere out there and the job of the journalist is to capture it, the way a hunter might truss up a lion, and deliver it neatly wrapped to our doorstep.

When we discover that's not a realistic assumption, we may adopt the opposite but equally simplistic view that there's no objective reality out there at all, but only different people's opinion of it.

But if all the news is subjective, discussion is reduced to shouting heads yelling past each other on your TV screen. Or the like-minded echoing each other's prejudices with no net gain in perception.

The most adept propagandists leave the impression that it is only those unfashionable others who spin the news -- the politicians, the bloggers, the tabloids, the ever despised Media . . . . In short, the always sinister They. It is only the trustworthy We who live in a spin-free zone. Kipling said it: "All good people agree,/And all good people say,/All nice people, like us, are We/And everyone else is They . . . ."

Think of the faux impartiality of The New York Times or a Lou Dobbs. They give their prejudices an air of objectivity, even expertise.

NPR is particularly good at it, too, and particularly annoying. The BBC and Fox News are less irritating because their biases are so blatant.

We keep being told about news coverage that is Fair and Balanced, or Impartial and Objective. Unfortunately, we tend to use all those terms as synonyms. They aren't.

Just quoting both sides of a debate and leaving it at that may be balanced, but it's scarcely fair to the reader. And there's nothing commendable about being so impartial between truth and falsity that we split the difference between the two and call it objectivity.

If the press just recites what the politicians say, we run the risk of being reduced to a bullhorn for their version of reality. Call it the Joe McCarthy Problem. Merely to retail a demagogue's propaganda and stop there, without examining it, is to become an accomplice to it.

Happily, the truth has a way of breaking through all our fair-and-balanced formulas. When a larger reality bumps up against our limited perception of it, a certain friction is created, a kind of buzz.

Call it cognitive dissonance. Things don't jibe. Some idea we've been carrying around in our heads for the longest time begins to crumble under the impact of actual experience. And the scales fall from our eyes.

Think of Winston Smith in George Orwell's "1984." One day, constructing official reality at his job in the Ministry of Truth, the way a U.S. senator might change what he said on the floor by the time it appears in the Congressional Record, poor Winston encounters a telltale photograph of an event that, according to the party line, didn't occur -- couldn't possibly have occurred.

Uh oh. Being well-trained in rightthink, Winston throws the incriminating evidence down the memory hole. That should have been the end of it. But he's already been subverted. The memory of that photograph grates on his conflicted mind. His reality has been deconstructed.

I grew up reading the editorials in the old Shreveport Times and knew that separate-but-equal was the way to go when it came to race relations in the South.

Then one day, riding the trolley to school, when it came to a stop on Louisiana Avenue, right across from stately, whites-only Hamilton Terrace Junior High, the black kids in the back of the bus filed off. (They were called Negroes back then rather than Black or African-American, but that's a whole other column -- one about how we struggle with our identities.)

I looked down and saw that the pavement ended where the jagged street they took -- a muddy road, really -- began. I could easily picture the separate but unequal school that awaited them at the bottom of the hill. And I was jarred by what the psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

Two ideas were colliding in my young mind -- the long accepted assumption and the disturbing new reality. And my mind was changing.

I could never again believe that separate-but-equal schools existed in the real world. Or that, even if possible, they would be desirable.

That one image of a gravel road crystallized all the other separate-but-unequal sights I'd grown up seeing but never perceiving. It was a kind of epiphany.

First we get the static, the confusion, the ideological discontent, all the symptoms of cognitive dissonance, and only then -- if we're honest -- the stabbing clarity. We may not like what we suddenly see, but we can no longer deny it to ourselves.

How perceive reality, how separate wheat from chaff, the party line from the glimmer of truth?

I tell the journalism students I talk with now and then to stay open to those shining moments of clarity when they become aware of a certain . . . cognitive dissonance.